As a former university Professor I hate to say it, but universities are being outcompeted on education in terms of teaching and learning. Like sailing ships before steam, like publishing before the internet, hamstrung by their philosophy and methodology, they are blind as the new education industry expands rapidly all around them. Their future is limited, but they don’t seem to see it yet.
The old days of universities
When I was a student, only 10% of high school students went to university. You went to the local uni, studied on campus, fulltime, sessions were face to face and the cost was low (free for many).
Teachers and students knew each other, classes were generally small and debate was a significant part of the education process. In addition, a lot of non-curriculum ‘education’ took place, as young people embraced freedoms, lived together, found causes and matured into adults (at least that is what we thought we were at 21!). Being on campus was important, talking was important, taking the opportunity to explore new ideas was important.
Universities in the 2010s
By the time I finished my university career recently, 30+% of high school students were entering university in Australia. No longer for the elite, university undergraduate education is considered necessary just to get a reasonable job at all.
Campuses have internationalised (20% of all students are international). Classes are huge and available online, so there is limited reason to attend. Group work is a heavy contributor to grades and, with the onus now on the lecturer to justify a ‘fail’ for a student, most students pass most courses, which surely raises the issue of quality and quality control. Despite this, because Australia is a developed country which teaches in English, it is currently very popular with the non-English speaking world, especially those valuing a relatively safe, Western lifestyle with a clean environment.
Students work part-time, limiting the time they can – and want – to be on campus. The university provides only the narrow curriculum learning for most. Students get their life education via workplaces outside the university, earning incomes to support their desired lifestyle, with university time fitted in to the minimum necessary.
Costs are now high, but total numbers are growing, heavily due to 20 years of international student growth. How can universities be in trouble??
The education industry in the 2010s
Until the 1990s, universities were the main perceived provider of advanced education. But in the 2010s, education is no longer confined to physically-limited local universities. If I want to learn about something new (for me), I go to Professor Google. She provides me – instantly – with endless sources of information, of varying quality and value, but enough for me to learn and ‘know’ about my request.
Doctors tell of patients who inform them – the doctors – about the latest research and findings of the particular issue the patient is dealing with! Who is educating who here? If I want to undertake a formal course, I’m not just limited to a local university. There are many sources of learning. Internet enables students to access education globally. Commercial firms offer all kinds of courses. TAFEs and CAEs proliferate (not to mention U3As for the emerging older market). Businesses provide in-house courses. Costs are generally much lower than universities, while learning occurs more quickly and is often perceived to be more relevant for the specific needs of the particular student. Course lengths are flexible and generally much shorter than universities offering similar material, starting times are frequent, there is often open access (no prerequisites) and completion is key, so there is little or no concern with failing.
Time is an important constraint on the ability of universities to compete in the future. To prepare a new university course it still seems to take 12-24 months, or 6-12 months for even an existing course revision, due to the wide number of people and groups to be consulted and the inherently conservative, non-commercial nature of universities.
In contrast, non-university providers can put together a complete new course in a week or a month. And who is to know what the relative quality is? People, not just students, choose courses for their narrow, just-in-time needs, for small bites of knowledge and as a reaction to learning a lot of information in university courses that has little impact on their needs. Will all those theories really help me in my job and career?
Universities v. Education: the current state of play
University standards are wilting under student/customer/commercial/government funding pressures. Courses are out of date or too slow to change. Universities can only handle small physical numbers. But everyone is a student and student expectations now are completely different. Give me only what I need as soon as possible and let me out, or I will find someone who can.
And seeking knowledge of any form has gone heavily online. Education sources are now international, becoming global. It’s quick, relatively cheap, flexible and customised. Universities offer none of these – and don’t propose to do so! With the rapid changes to information availability and the central role of internet, savvy, commercially-oriented non-university providers are having a field day catering to expanding demand from all adults, not just high school graduates.
The main weapon universities have left is their piece of paper at course end. University pieces of paper are generally worth more than competitors, due to perception of their quality. But scandals around entry standards, pass rates, skill levels and international students’ speaking ability suggest this perception is not strictly correct.
So although universities continue to offer education and expand numbers, so many other providers exist – providers and products which university leaders don’t even consider in their decisionmaking processes – that the education industry has virtually bypassed the university sector, leaving it wallowing in its wake. How long before smart students seeking high quality ask whether there are cheaper, quicker, credible ways to acquire the same knowledge that universities used to have a monopoly on?
Because the developing world is much larger than the developed world and the non-English speaking world is larger than the English speaking world, the demand for education will continue to expand. But it will become increasingly clear that advanced education can be done quicker, cheaper, more relevantly than universities and, where necessary, to the same quality control levels.
Just as the church was left behind in the knowledge industry when the printing press was invented, so universities are being left behind, to be niche providers, of non-commercial material and knowledge. In 20 years, will even the most elite students still be seeking universities? And if they do, will they be seeking our universities, or ones from the rest of the world?