Crisis management

Software needs to eat academia — fast

Thousands of pupils here in the UK received their A-Level results last week. Record numbers of university places were offered. Why? In 2010, the annual fee to attend many UK universities was raised to £9000: a near 200% increase on the previous year. The rationale? Our universities needed to compete with their global counterparts. Very true. Having been lucky enough to attend universities in the UK, Italy and the USA I have first hand experience of the chasm that the Atlantic represents for these institutions. But this is an arms race — and the true cost is being borne by students. It’s going to get ugly unless tech steps in to challenge the existing constants, variables and business models which have led us to this point.

The cost of tuition and textbooks is rising far over and above inflation. A large part of this is due to ‘Baumol’s cost disease’. For industries like healthcare and education — which are difficult to automate, robotise and cognify — improvements in productivity are hard to come by. However they compete with other industries for scarce inputs (e.g. labour). These other industries (e.g. car manufacturing) have experienced massive labour productivity increases due to technology. As a result, they have been able to increase wages. In an effort to retain and attract talent, healthcare and education companies must also increase wages. This cost then has to be borne by the consumer hence the above-inflation rises seen above and below. Paradoxically the one thing — technology — that can (and will) help, is the one thing that that is causing all of the problems.

Where does this leave us? It leaves the average US student on graduation with $35k to repay. UK students leave university with ‘the highest levels of debt in the English-speaking world’ with the average student having to repay ~£45k. Perhaps to late teens and early-twentysomethings the idea of paying off a pile of debt sometime in the future might seem like an irrelevance. For the time being that outlook is a luxury that can just about be afforded. Soon enough though, given current trends, education won’t be economically viable.

That was a huge realisation that I’m still digesting. Education is the great leveller. It allows for social mobility. Higher levels of education are correlated with lower levels of social unrest and crime. It’s the single greatest investment that we make as countries, citizens and parents in the future of our nations and the planet. The idea that it, to the students of tomorrow, may be rendered unviable is a reality with consequences that we would be unwise to flirt with. By the time that governments grapple with the issues at hand it will be too late: delinquencies will be commonplace and damaging trends already established.

All is far from lost. In fact, we’re surrounded with possible answers and solutions to this problem many of which we can adapt from our experiences in other industries.

The cost of proprietary content is too expensive. This was the case for the music industry then Napster happened. Following that disruption we were delivered services which charged customers for what they actually wanted to consume: iTunes, SoundCloud, Spotify, etc. — you know the story. Journal articles and theses have already had their ‘Napster moment’ with Sci-Hub breaking the ice and attempting to democratise access to knowledge which is tied-up behind paywalls. In fact, the parallels between Napster and Sci-Hub are spooky-similar. As with journal articles, access to textbooks will probably follow a similar route.

The cost of tuition is too expensive. So we need to make educators more productive. This is also already happening. Codifying their knowledge and allowing better communication is a process well underway with increasing amounts of online elements to courses, MOOCs, skills & bitesize course portals and teacher-pupil/parent platforms springing up. More and more paper will disappear. There’s also a great deal more to be done with the personalisation of education and improving outcomes. This pedagogical shift will require a collective deep breath. We’ve been operating an arcane and largely untouched educational format, curriculum and subject selection for a while now (hundreds of years). As we focus on productivity and outcomes there are likely to be some losers — niche subjects, perhaps even languages, come to mind — and we must be careful to conserve those areas which bestow intangible benefits on society.

Education represents a $5 trillion market. Beyond the money, the value of an educated populace is tough to quantify. It provides the bedrock for innovation and improvement of ourselves. Rarely can I think of a problem that there is so much value in solving. There are a few out there blazing a trail but not nearly enough. I’ve got my eyes, ears and diary open.