In the future, will world-class universities like Harvard still exist? Image Credit: Todd Van Hooser/ flickr
Over the next few weeks I will be looking into the current changing face of education and its implications for the future. The blog is in part a summary of An Avalanche is Coming, a paper published in March of this year by the Institute for Public Policy Research, where they argue that over the next 50 years we could see a golden age for higher education, but only if all the players in the system, from students to governments, seize the initiative and act ambitiously. The traditional higher education model of ivory towers is not permanent, and if stakeholders don't act and evolve, they are at risk of being swept away in an avalanche.
Today I will be looking at the current changes in technology, the economy, politics, and how this is affecting the education system.
Firstly, the combination of globalisation and technology is transforming the way the global economy works. In terms of education, it creates a global 'shopping' trend in education, whereby students look further than their own country for the best education. This trend will accelerate as public funding for higher education around the world is reduced and replaced by funding such as loans.
The global economy is also dealing with a trauma of the worst crisis in modern times, exacerbated by the fact that the vast majority of the money made in the boom went to a small economic elite, with the lower and middle classes failing to keep up. This has led to frighteningly high levels of youth unemployment, over 50% in Spain, while in the UK in 2011 25% of those who left university with a degree were unemployed. At the same time, employers complain of having unfilled vacancies as they struggle to find people with suitable attributes and skills, even in entry level positions. This has led to both graduates and employers questioning the value of a degree.
Britain introduced higher tuition fees in 2012 and this trend has been seen throughout the world. However, a cost based approach to education is irrelevant to student experience; highly paid research professors are unlikely to teach undergraduates. The price of higher education is additionally unaccountable for via supply and demand, which means that measures such as rankings are seen as proxies for quality. Additional cost is assumed to correlate with higher quality, but this creates a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby universities can increase costs as a measure of quality; when the new fee regime was introduced in 2012 many universities chose to set their fees at the maximum because they felt that if they offered less they would be seen as low-quality which would cause them to lose their market share.
The US Department of Education recently noted that the average earnings for US students with a bachelors degree fell 14.7% between 2000 and 2012 despite a 72% increase in cost. In the UK, the number of graduates gaining a 1st has increased by 45% in 4 years. Again, this leads us to question the value of a degree, at least in the traditional sense. At the same time, degrees are necessary for a vast majority of job opportunities, if only as a way of making it onto the résumé pile.
Information is ubiquitous nowadays, with lecturers or a university no longer having the monopoly they once had, hence the power of the academy is reduced. Furthermore, although the highest value is still given to scholarly articles, blogs, videos, tweets etc. are also valuable to students.
The universities of Europe and North America have had their heyday, and are being threatened by the emergence of Asian and South American institutions. To survive, the Western model has to develop drastically to exploit the radically changing circumstances that are the result of globalisation and the digital revolution, and one way they can do this is through the advancement of MOOCs. They also need to focus on real world skills, and increasingly there have been sources of higher education that are not universities, but are just as well regarded. One example is the Thiel Fellowship, more competitive than Princeton, which offers $50,000 a year for two years so that recipients can drop out of university and focus on their ideas and projects, with students finding that work-based learning and connecting with mentors operating in their field more valuable than abstract study.
Various university rankings are also a barrier to innovators who want to enter the top global universities. These rankings are an influential factor in a students' choice of university, and carry significant brand value in the sphere of employment and the larger non-academic community. It also governs how administrators shape the policy and direction of the institutions themselves in a bid to rise up the rankings. However, factors related to research activity account for a high proportion of the ranking criteria, but have little impact on a typical undergraduate's experience. In addition, they make it almost impossible for a new provider to rise in prominence without huge funding budgets over many decades.
Next week I will be evaluating how universities can be successful and thrive over the coming decades.