Education: which master to serve?

More and more I feel higher education is caught in a dangerous trap. Shall it be the students or the “real world” that HE serves? And if so, what will happen with the centuries long traditions of academic education, with the principles of teaching through research? Can the principles of Plato still be nurtured in the 21st century, with ‘conversing with followers’, and providing secure places for accumulation of knowledge?

X A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery — circa 1766 — Joseph Wright of Derby

The ‘good old days’, like in so many spheres of life, are gone — if they ever existed. With governments all over the world pulling out of HE, funding needs are moved to students (and parents). Universities are forced to secure a growing stream of income through grants and funds. By paying a growing share, students gradually land in the position of ‘customers’, who expect to get what they pay for. Some of them like hard work, others don’t. Some of them are ready — and capable — of reading academic texts, other are not. Some of them enjoy interacting with their fellow students and their teacher, others prefer staying at home and hardly ever attending any class. What does not differ, is that, naturally, all of them expect a degree. Scholars are puzzled and have difficulties suddenly finding real ‘customers’ on their doorsteps. What if a student expects to be seen well after working hours, claiming they are working during the day? How to handle the refusal of reading academic texts by saying there is an alternative, easier to read choice? But then, if external funds are secured, be it corporate or EU, private or public, will that still leave education intact or, simply fulfilling the conditions of securing the flow of income drains the energy from actual teaching itself. Who will then have the time for office hours and tutorials with students?

The fundamental financial structural dilemma is made even bigger, if we account for all the changes about how we like to gain knowledge. Today’s world is self-service based, we like to look for and choose the content that fits our ideas, ambitions and level of commitment. Through internet and social media, the young generation is at ease at finding all the information that is needed for their individual lives. Going to a library, reading full books with difficult texts, learning without entertainment, focus on understanding of complicated issues does not seem to be the flavour of our years. In general, the young generation is at an advantage compared to the (older) teachers, being able to search for relevant information quickly. After all, nobody can argue, that being happy and successful in your life builds strongly on being able to find the necessary information — doing that quickly can mean a head start.

X Professor J Robert Oppenheimer circa 1958 — by Philippe Halsman

Finally, about the companies. In various advisory and university boards, community committees and partnership agreements, companies repeatedly claim that upon graduation, school leavers do not have the necessary skill set to start their work. ‘How come they don’t have entrepreneurial skills?’ ‘Why can’t they think in projects?’ ‘What about their creativity?’ The list of questions could be continued, but let’s be fair. You can not expect the university to teach everything that a. might be missing already in elementary and secondary schools b. even companies get to realise their importance recently. Who would have thought 10 years ago that the primary skill companies are looking for is flexibility?

Clearly, higher education has a long way to go.

  1. It needs to come to term with a changing teacher — student relationship. It has to close on the mental and technological gap of the process of learning: the way of acquiring knowledge needs to be adapted. Interactivity, flexibility, student experience will be the buzzwords.
  2. Scholars need to get better support from their school managements. Priorities of their responsibilities have to redesigned with putting knowledge sharing based value added into the focus, and giving them support through securing ample time and financial resources.
  3. Communities, governments and society in general needs to keep valuing knowledge as the ultimate source of creating a liveable and maintainable society. Better funding, higher appreciation of knowledge and an ongoing dialogue of all the stakeholders are needed.

As with so many issues, communication can play a key role. Reasoned public discourse can lead to understanding and appreciating differing interests and needs. Who knows, in the end we might even redefine Academia for the 21st century.

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