Seeing stars

Trying to forecast the future of higher education tends to leave heads spinning, but new analysis from the OECD’s data guru brings some trends into focus

March 16, 2023
Nostradamus (1503-1566), 16th century to illustrate 'Looking to the stars'
Source: Getty (edited)

Mystic Meg was described as an “astrology icon” in tributes that followed her death last week at the age of 80 – a title that, in the UK at least, she shares only with Russell Grant (still with us, now in his 70s).

That astrologers are no longer the prominent national figures they once were may represent changing tastes and the flood of dubious information available online these days.

More fancifully, I like to imagine it also reflects something else: that the predictions business is getting harder.

It’s a point I’ve made before, but in recent years I have started each new year by asking a selection of informed people to foretell the issues that will dominate higher education in the months ahead.

Their answers always seem sensible and plausible – and are then promptly blown out of the water.

Take the past three years: the arrival of the Covid pandemic, turning universities upside down; the outbreak of war in Ukraine, with wide-ranging implications including rampant inflation; and now the emergence of ChatGPT, an AI application that present-day soothsayers tell us is going to change everything all over again.

Even Mystic Meg (real name Margaret Lake) would have been hard-pressed to identify these as the dominant topics at the start of each year, and yet here we are.

In this week’s cover story, we take an in-depth look at one of the less-discussed aspects of ChatGPT’s impact on universities: how it might be used in research, an area that has largely been overlooked amid the widespread panic about the implications for teaching, learning and assessment.

Free from the hysteria of the latter debate, the article considers ways in which the AI writer could be deployed as a tool – in particular whether it could pick up some of the bureaucracy that researchers despise, such as drafting grant applications or writing abstracts, or more involved tasks such as writing literature reviews.

A caveat to all this – and one that applies in almost all proposed uses of the tool – is ChatGPT’s propensity to offer up plausible but flawed or downright inaccurate information (insert your own astrology gag here).

A reliable way to judge what is coming down the track is to use data, and attendees at last week’s Higher Education Policy Institute annual lecture in London were treated to a sweeping global overview by the OECD’s education guru, Andreas Schleicher.

His brief was to consider whether higher education is “fit for the future”, and his analysis took in everything from demographic decline (a big threat in the medium term, Schleicher warned) to participation rates (broadly up, though for all the suggestions that the UK has too much university study, competitors such as Canada have far more).

He also, inevitably, zeroed in on the role of universities in delivering skills – not just in the sense of tracking employment rates and graduate outcomes, though the picture remains very strongly favourable to tertiary education on both fronts, particularly at times of economic downturn.

His analysis also looked at lifelong learning and the role of microcredentials in a changing ecosystem, something that Schleicher explores further in an interview with us this week.

In the week that marked International Women’s Day, he also reviewed some of the data relating to women in higher education, observing that across all OECD countries, completion rates for women remain considerably higher than for men, that under-representation of women in STEM fields persists at every level from short courses to doctoral study, and that women outnumber men as a proportion of tertiary staff in just six of the 35 OECD countries included in his data.

It is worth adding, though, that there was a trend for improvement across these metrics, something that was shown, too, in our analysis for International Women’s Day of the proportion of women leading the world’s most prominent universities – a quarter of the top 200 universities in our rankings now have female vice-chancellors. We explore this further in the context of the very elite universities in our news pages this week, with Harvard, MIT, Oxford, Cambridge, Columbia and NYU among examples in the US and the UK that are now led by women.

Would many of us have seen that in the stars even a few years ago? As Evelyn Welch, vice-chancellor of the University of Bristol, put it in a tweet responding to our analysis: “It’s not enough, but it’s a good start.”

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