Higher Education Is in Trouble, And Should Be — Higher Education is Broken, Let’s Disrupt it and Build a Better Model of Adult Education Series, Part 1

An old university building with ivy on the walls
An old university building with ivy on the walls
Photo by Darya Tryfanava on Unsplash

This series of articles examines the deep and profound structural issues in post-secondary and adult education, examines the disruptive forces at work and works towards a new model of adult education that can truly work for all.

Here is part one.

A university radio station interior
A university radio station interior
Photo by Paolo Nicolello on Unsplash

Higher Education Is in Trouble, And Should Be, an Introduction to the Series

Even before Covid-19, higher education was dead in the water, it just didn’t generally realise it. Propped up by government policies, current business practices, the massive self-interest of the sector itself and the connivance of the professional bodies, the body is still twitching but life has departed.

Having spent over 40 years in higher education in one role or another, this greatly saddens me to say. But the truth is that the writing has been on the wall for over 20 years, and my growing clarity of this has paralleled my growing dissatisfaction with the sector and unease at its practices.

In this short article I am going to set the scene for the articles to follow, which will drill down into and expose the issues.

Key Factors at Play

In no particular order, these are some of the key factors that have driven us to this point:

· Changing government policies, funding and a general shift to user pays economics

· The rise of universal, disruptive technologies

· Massively rising student debt

· Increasing awareness by students of their own power as consumers

· Rapidly increasing student dissatisfaction and complaint

· Growing dissatisfaction by business of the quality of higher education outputs

· Rapid societal, technological and business rates of change

· Demographic changes

· The advancing internationalisation of society and business

· Increasing threats to internationalisation

· Divides within societies growing in severity

· Exposure of the fundamental conflict between research and teaching

· Failures to adapt and change with the times

· Rapid expansion of higher education without due consideration and planning

· A shift to an inappropriate focus on immediate business needs in courses

· Overwhelming workloads and conflicting priorities pushing academics to making poor choices and reaching the breaking point

· The same with higher education administrators

· The pressures caused by meeting the needs of more diverse students, and

· Lack of success in supporting cognitive or neuro diversity

· The need to apply sustainable principles, in the broadest sense, to higher education

We will be tackling these in this series of articles.

Signs of the Crunch Point

I would argue that the situation has now reached a clear crisis point.

According to Statista, US college admissions peaked in 2011 and have declined each year till 2018, the last year for which they have data. The decline was greatest in private collages. A careful read of the numbers shows the UK had a slight decline in UK students at university over the same period, whilst the number of international students in UK universities roughly doubled. By 2018 also, enrolments of Australian students in higher education had flatlined, with no growth in the proportion of school leavers entering higher education. Growth in the sector was fuelled by a rising dependence on international students, and especially from China.

In 2011, entrepreneur Peter Thiel introduced a scholarship for students to drop out of college and develop a business. This represents a significant step in an ongoing process of successful business people, many of whom have dropped out or never attended university, recommending a different path.

At the end of June 2020 Microsoft announced an initiative to improve global digital skills by bringing together non-university learning resources from LinkedIn Learning, Microsoft Learn, and the GitHub Learning Lab in a coordinated and planned way. Microsoft will provide Certifications and LinkedIn will support job finding activities.

Two weeks later, on July 14 2020, Google announced a whole range of professional certification programs that can be done for US$49 a month. Major scholarship funding was also announced for those who could not afford this. With an approximate six month completion time, Google also announced that its hiring staff would equate such a certificate as the equivalent of a four year university degree.

It is very significant that all three initiatives sidelined universities completely.

Conclusions and a Lead into the Series

In this short introduction I’ve outlined some of the contributing factors to the potential demise of universities, at least in their present form. We’ve also seen a momentum building for alternatives.

In the rest of this series I am going to dig deeper into some of these factors and suggest solutions. Some of these will expose issues rarely talked about except among senior academics in private. The future could be bright for universities, but not in their present form. And there is the need for some of what universities currently do to be taken over by new types of organisations. The future is bright for higher education, just very different.

The second article is on the impact of rising student numbers and changes in government policy.

Artist, Author, Druid, Educator, Polymath, Technologist. CEO TechnoMagickal. Co-Founder, CTO and Chief Learning Officer, TMRW Group. Ed Lead, Octivo Australia.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store