Is there an avalanche coming to Higher Education?

Recently I read a report, with rather an intriguing title, on the future of higher education: "An avalanche is coming. Higher Education and the Revolution Ahead".1 The authors assert that just as technology and globalisation have transformed sectors such as music, the media, or even banking in recent decades, so too will they impact upon higher education, leaving it with an uncertain future. 

In effect, the university, a thousand year old medieval institution, is now of late, being seriously challenged by new competitors. Think of such companies as Google and Microsoft for example, who would rather train their own professionals, and such organisations as the Thiel Fellowship who support young talent as they pursue radical innovation with a completely disruptive education model. Then there are, of course, the MOOC platforms (Massive Open Online Courses) which allow leading universities from around the world, such as Stanford and Princeton, to offer on-line courses completely free.

The emergence of these new competitors, with vastly different business models, is forcing us to rethink the value added of traditional universities. In other words, why would someone sit in class at the Public Basque University (UPV-EHU) if they could learn from ‘superstar’ professors at Stanford at no cost to the students? What role can the traditional university play in this new scenario?  

In my opinion, there is still much the traditional university can do. The university is a pillar of our social and economic model, and it plays a fundamental role not only in education, generating and transferring knowledge, but also in developing and modernising society. Nevertheless, I do believe that universities still need to evolve, albeit on the foundation of their existing strengths, in order to adapt to an environment that is demanding new ways of both how we do things and how we learn.

And in that regard, one of the differential values which universities need to reinforce is what students experience in class: the interactive style of learning based around dialogue, debate, and hands-on learning, cannot easily be replicated online. That’s why it’s so critical at this time to move away from the outdated ‘master class’ model and search for new methodologies which develop students’ own creativity, ideas and reasoning. Perhaps what we’ll see in future is a mixed model where the professor uses the Stanford course as a textbook and later uses class-time to discuss thoughts, observations, criticisms, or questions with students. 

Furthermore, universities need to continue to offer a solidly holistic and generalist education, while developing students’ transferrable skills. In essence, an approach is required which promotes curriculum flexibility and encourages students to reinvent themselves throughout their career. In fact, all indicators point to a future workplace which will call upon individuals to actively engage in their own ongoing learning, embark upon a variety of projects throughout their lives, and reinvent themselves in terms of attitudes and aptitudes. Indeed, universities would ideally be 'the' place where one ‘learns to learn’ in a manner of speaking.

Of the plethora of possibilities of dealing with the coming avalanche, there is one which is certainly not an option: keeping the status quo. Those universities who remain firmly entrenched in 20th Century education models will find it increasingly difficult to survive in future. However, those universities who are capable of changing and adapting to the opportunities being presented will escape the avalanche and will come out stronger.


1 By Michael Barber, Katelyn Donnelly, and Saad Rizvi. (Published by IPPR-Institute for Public Policy Research, March 2013.)

Ana Avendaño

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