What does the global future hold for higher education?

While some fear a dystopian outcome in which private innovators bypass the university, others are more sanguine about the potential threats to the sector

April 20, 2017
An image from Blade Runner
Source: Rex

When it was released in 1982, Blade Runner offered a barnstorming vision of the future. Set in Los Angeles in 2019, the film depicts a metropolis of flying cars and bioengineered “replicants” bumping off humans in a bid to take over the world.

There are still a couple of years to go, so we may get there yet. But even if we don’t, think about how extraordinary 2017 would have sounded 35 years ago. Imagine a world where we can all connect to one another – and access the entirety of human knowledge – in an instant; where swathes of society are seeing their way of life obliterated by automation; and where Harrison Ford is still coming to a screen near you in the latest Star Wars .

The internet, digital media and unimaginable growth of computing power has ushered in an age of social interaction on a global scale, all taking place at lightning speed and almost no cost. Everything has changed.

Or has it? In the case of education, visions of digital avalanches sweeping away 900-year-old academic institutions have, like those armies of killer replicants, proved wide of the mark. But it’s also the case that education is changing in deceptively dramatic ways. Student numbers grow exponentially – according to some estimates, global higher education now adds 8-10 million places to its capacity in a single year. The cost of study is often cripplingly high. And, yes, there has also been a certain amount of innovation in the way courses are delivered.

There are some who believe that a more definitive moment of reckoning may still be coming. Speaking at the Times Higher Education Young Universities Summit at Queensland University of Technology this month, Arun Sharma, deputy vice-chancellor of QUT, said this was most likely in a “dystopian” system such as exists in India, where “never has the demand for higher education and the ability of the country to deliver it been so much at odds”.

Prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology or Management account for a tiny fraction of student places, and “as soon as you go below that, the quality becomes absolutely terrible”.

The moment is already coming, he said, when this lower strata of provision can be “unbundled”, with private companies such as Aspiring Minds – an Indian “graduate brokerage service” that received financial backing from eBay’s founder – providing a testing service on behalf of employers, and in effect replacing universities as the trusted guarantors of quality and credit – at least as far as employability skills are concerned. This shows how, in the right conditions, private innovators could bypass some university systems, according to Sharma, who said there were now examples of students who “enrol in a regional university, learn from [Mooc platforms] edX and Coursera, and use Aspiring Minds to get a job”.

If this model does indeed start to dominate in a country such as India, could it ever become a major factor in more developed systems?

Another of the speakers at the THE summit, Brian McCraith, president of Dublin City University, said the more likely scenario was major disruption in the way lifelong learning is delivered. “The nature of work is changing, we know that a lot of traditional jobs are going to be replaced by a combination of artificial intelligence, data analytics and so on, so the whole emphasis on continuous upskilling is going to be critically important,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a real threat to undergraduate education, apart from the democratisation of access in countries such as India.”

A similar conclusion is reached in our feature by Warren Bebbington, who retires as vice-chancellor of the University of Adelaide this month after 40 years in higher education. Looking into his crystal ball to imagine the sector 10 years hence, he ponders whether increasingly unaffordable universities will be replaced by campus-less global online providers. The answer, he concludes, is no, arguing that while online enhancement has brought benefits, some students now graduate with “the attention span of a tweet, as competent surfers of the digital wave of bite-sized communications, saturated in a sea of information but unable to navigate the wider ocean”.

If this sounds like an apocalyptic vision itself, Bebbington moderates it by arguing that the way to prepare students for an unknowable future is to use technological developments appropriately but, above all, stay true to old values and focus on the alchemy of small group teaching, which is impossible to replicate online.

It is a view echoed in our news pages by humanities professor Sir Christopher Ricks, who extols the virtues of seminars that can “open up into a lively conversation between students” and lead in interesting and unexpected directions “a little like the beginning in [the Quentin Tarantino film] Reservoir Dogs ”.

The lecture is dead. Long live the seminar?

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

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