It is the summer of 2020 and higher education is in crisis again : – but this is a big one. There are projections that are many private universities will go broke in the next year to 18 months because in the light of the coronavirus crisis the product they’re selling is not something that can be delivered safely.
Part of the problem is that over the past couple of decades universities have boxed themselves into selling a particular product and that product now cannot proceed as normal. ‘Business as usual’ cannot go on. What we’ve been sold as normal is not by any means normal
The dream that’s been put out there by university recruiters and administrations to a greater or lesser extent in various different countries depending on local customs and laws and whatever is that
- Everybody goes to college, and that’s a good thing but it’s not necessarily universally true
- A degree guarantees a good job. If you have a degree that is the pathway to lifelong satisfaction and indeed that once you have a degree, four years and you’re done for life.
- Another part of the problem is that college is increasingly about “the experience.” It is not just about the learning and the academic qualifications but it is also about the social life of the clubs and societies and sports and all those other parts of the process of growing up and maturing. Those things happen and both of them happen in the same timeframe but trying to sell them as a package when on campus presence is a huge problem is a difficulty.
Part of the package that universities are and have been putting out there is that everybody goes to university. That’s certainly desirable for both professional and personal reasons: everybody should have a crack at university level education at some point in their lives or in fact at several points in their lives. But it is not by any means universally true nor is it something that has always been true.
There were several big bursts in the expansion of the university system globally. After the 1850s in a number of countries there was a significant burst of expansion. After the Second World War during the 1950s and 60s there was an enormous expansion in the capacity of university education globally and a huge expansion of the number of places available. In theory in many countries there is some sort of third level place for everyone who finishes secondary school.
But this is a relatively recent development. It goes back no more than 50 years. It has also not universally penetrated everywhere. Even in the countries with the highest participation rates in 3 and 4 year honors degrees the participation rate is only about 50% . The highest participation rate globally that I’ve been able to find recent numbers for is for two-year degrees in South Korea and that’s 69%. That means that in many countries 50% do not immediately go to university at the age of 18 and get a degree so this idea that that it is a ‘must do’ and it’s something that everybody does is not necessarily the case. A lot of people don’t and there’s a serious gap in the research in terms of what those people do and what sort of pathways they follow and it’s certainly something which we should do something about because everybody needs for both personal and professional development to go through the sort of learning that happens in university at some point in their life.
Another problem is that universities have increasingly been selling more and more specialized degrees in narrower and narrower areas and that’s a problem because they’ve been forcing people to choose at eighteen what career pathway they want to follow.
It used to be the case that a good general degree would allow you to access a wide range of jobs after you completed. It it is now less and less so. The number of opportunities open is contracted because you’re competing with people who have opted at the age of 18 for a more specialized, career focused a degree and that’s partly the fault of the universities and partly the fault of parents.
There’s been a kind of unholy alliance there where the question is asked “Will this degree get my child a job?” and universities have moved to respond to that by offering degrees where they can more clearly say “Yes this degree narrowly leads to this job” and that’s forcing people to make a choice at an age when they’re not necessarily ready for it. It’s also created quite a lot of narrowly focused specialized degrees and people are now looking at these thinking “I don’t even know if that jobs going to be there in four years.”
The other problem is with the experience and it’s certainly true that there’s a significant amount of growing up that happens between the ages of 18 and 22 and it happens to take place at the same time as people are in university but the two are not necessarily part of the same package although they are now sold as part of the same package. There are a number of faults in that ideal that universities market to us and it’s a rock on which they’re now hanging themselves
Frst of all a lot of people don’t go away to university. Many people go to the University in their local town which means they’re living at home while they’re in college and they’re not getting the full dorm campus living experience
Many universities don’t actually have the same range of facilities as the top-flight University although facilities for sports and clubs and society and other activities is improving radically in most universities over the past 20 years
Even in the case where people do go away for a lot of people participation in that full range of activities is problematic because there’s in many cases a cost so this idealized University experience with fancy coffee shops and climbing walls and stuff that’s been marketed as something that is an essential part of going to university is not necessarily essential.
Now when universities are in a situation where they can no longer guarantee being able to provide that suddenly they’ve hung themselves on a situation whereby building “the experience” as an essential part of the product but when you can’t offer that then the product apparently is fatally crippled
Another problem is this whole “four years and you’r edone” model of university education
It’s the strangest business model ever. What other business works vigorously to recruit people at the age of 18 as customers, keep them for three or four years depending on the system and then have a big fancy ceremony and tell them to go away. Who does that? Universities do that.
They sell this idea that once you’ve got your degree you’re done, which is an interesting and attractive marketing proposition for people at the age of 18 who want to get out there and get in the world and earn money. It’s an attractive proposition to sell to parents because they want their children to move along and get a job and have an income and be self-sustaining. But it doesn’t reflect the reality of how people’s careers go and how they interact with learning
We now know that knowledge has a finite lifespan. While there are certain bodies of knowledge in many professions that remain solid and constant throughout your working career there’s also a lot of knowledge that goes out of date in many careers. In most areas now it’s necessary to engage in some sort continuous professional development to keep up to date with what’s happening in your profession. In some careers it’s mandatory. Also people change so a great many people change careers completely in midlife and go back into a degree in a totally different area. But universities are selling a product and the product is “Four years and you’re done” so give us lots of money for four years and you’ll be fine for life.
In hanging themselves on this universities are missing a trick because what people in higher education should be doing and what they should be saying to people at eighteen is “We are recruiting you to be your knowledge partner for your life. We are going to do some stuff with you over the next two years maybe quite intensively and then you will go off and work for a while and come back and do some more and as your needs change. Through your life you can come back to us for six months or for a part-time course or whatever and we will top you up and tweak you and move you along on a path of learning which will last not just until you retire from work but all the way to the grave.”
That would be a more realistic and honest way to talk to people at the age of eighteen about their learning pathways. It would solve a number of problems. It would get around this idea that people must make a choice of a degree in the career at 18. It would recognize the changing nature of knowledge and the need for lifelong learning . It would recognize that people change and that they have different personal learning needs as they proceed through life. It would also get over the problem of not being able to deliver the full on-campus experience this year because if you were conceiving of the product not as a four year box to be ticked and passed away from but as a lifelong process then suddenly the fact that you can’t do it with all the bells and whistles right now this term is not as big a disaster as it is in the current model.
Every problem has a solution. The solution is to tease apart the four or five elements of the current package and establish that the learning part can be delivered online remotely this coming semester or at least significant portions of it can be. Because it all doesn’t have to be done right now, the bits that cannot be delivered can be picked up on next year or the year after when hopefully the crisis has passed and we have a better position to deal with those. The experience problem I don’t have an answer f. Clearly we have to look again at the experience of growing up for people between the ages of 18 and 22 and what the components of that are and what a good experience would be. While it’s been convenient for that to happen on university campuses, for the next couple of years that is not going to be possible so as a society we need to think about creative ways to fill that gap which do not depend on having thousands of potentially infectious young people together on university campuses. That’s a big question for which I do not have an answer.