A tsunami of disruption

Apocalyptic visions of the collapse of global higher education are getting old.

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

EY give me some of those 2012 Year of the MOOC chills in a report calling for a “fundamental rethink” of the higher education sector.

It’s a song we can all sing together at this stage – media, retail, and energy are undergoing disruptive change, and this uncertainty is heading the way of universities. Students apparently want a “high quality digital experience”, employers are once again demanding new skills and new flexibility, and demographics globally are somehow against universities. It’s a veritable “tsunami of disruption”!

Because revolutions have been “very few” in higher education, the vanguard of the revolution is at last upon us. There’s actually more people in higher education than there ever have been, by my reckoning, but this somehow adds up to existential pressure.

The thrust of the report – that universities probably, on balance, need to think a bit more seriously about the impact of enterprise-level IT systems on the student experience, is fair. But it seems to be impossible to make this point without predicting an apocalypse. For instance. imagine if:

  • the cost of learning is driven down to zero
  • learning journeys are flexible and customisable
  • providers are accountable for student outcomes
  • commercial research is revenue generating
  • students could study remotely

Scary stuff for the comfortable incumbents, no? I supposed it would be were all of these things not already happening. Since MIT OpenCourseWare kicked off in 2002 the cost of learning has been zero, learner journeys are customisable and are becoming more so, providers are accountable for outcome metrics to an extent bordering on the ridiculous. You can make money off (some) commercial research (if you are careful) and in 2022 it feels clear that students can indeed study remotely.

It’s pretty clear that, despite these things, traditional higher education is popular to the point of  over-subscription. What reports like this always end up making apparent is that we need to build more universities.

Meanwhile over at Policy Exchange, David Goodhart is upset that – depending on how we define “professional job” – about two thirds of graduates already end up in professional jobs a mere 15 months after graduating. We’re only a paragraph away from the “break up of the classical higher education monolith” and whatever post-92 provider means 30 years on he doesn’t think much of those either. “Surfing studies” gets a kicking – in reality a small, targeted, foundation degree at Cornwall College training the people that will work in the local surfing industry is somehow not serving the needs of local industry.

All this means the government (classic big state solution from Policy Exchange) needs to ban employers from advertising for graduates, this driving graduate employment down further.

The thing with all this collapsarian futurism is that it is all so depressingly predictable. There seems to be a millenarian cult dedicated to the end of higher education as we know it and when we think about the future of higher education we need to do a bit better than that.

One response to “A tsunami of disruption

  1. I would suggest the Great Upheaval by Levine and Van Pelt as a more balanced and thorough analysis for what future scenarios in HE might look like. Most US based but the parameters to look at that drive changes, like pop. growth, are applicable more broadly.

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