Monday, November 3, 2014

Can universities change course?

supertanker by wlai, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by wlai

Like it or not universities are going to have to face a completely new market in the next ten years. Most of them are still working in the traditional model of educating young people who come to campus for 3-5 years and then enter a career that will keep them employed till retirement. But although there may still be a place for this model there are strong signs that the concept of a university education preparing you for a career is becoming less valid. The demand for higher education among working professionals is growing rapidly and is overtaking the demand from the traditional 18-23 year old target group. The traditional target group could even shrink as more young people opt out of often over-priced higher education. In addition there is a massive demand for lifelong learning opportunities from people who have no university background but have gained equivalent skills outside the formal system. The worldwide demand for higher education is exploding and projections show an increase from 100 million today to 250 million by 2025. The traditional university system simply cannot cope with all this and unless we start building new major universities every day for the foreseeable future we will need to completely revise the provision of higher education.

The new learners are not able to uproot themselves to move to the university or commute to campus classes since most of them will be studying while working full-time. They will be more skills-focused than young students with no work experience and they may not see the point of many traditional academic concepts. The gold standard of the 3/4 year degree may not be relevant for tomorrow's professionals and traditional examination forms will be increasingly questioned in favour of various forms of skills assessment. Of course many universities already offer an extensive range of online courses and even degrees with many national open universities in the forefront, but with a few exceptions most institutions still see traditional campus education as core business and professional development and lifelong learning as a sideline at best. Higher education is also highly selective with millions of potential students being rejected every year. Where do you go if you can't get into university and should higher education be a privilege or a right?

The European Commission's High-Level Group on the modernisation of higher education has published a welcome report, New modes of learning and teaching in universities. They offer a number of recommendations for the improvement of teaching technologies and practices and stress the need for government authorities to stimulate and foster educational change rather than the present practice of delegating responsibility to grassroots initiatives alone. They call on all member states to draw up strategies to support universities in this major change in focus as well as stressing the need for coordinated teacher development and support. In addition they stress the need for quality assurance in online learning and the open availability of educational resources.

There remains a culture of conservatism within European higher education which needs to change. This demands strong leadership and vision from both public authorities and institutional leaders. While a broad range of good practice is already emerging across Europe, this is happening to a large degree in an uncoordinated bottom-up approach. It is now time for governments and institutions to develop comprehensive strategies at both the national and institutional level for the adoption of new modes of learning and teaching within higher education. 

The report makes refreshing reading and stresses what many of us have been saying for a long time, namely the need for commitment and engagement from the top level to coordinate and stimulate the important work done at grassroots level. Relying only on a bottom-up approach can only have a limited effect since sooner or later such initiatives bounce against the plexiglass ceiling of uninterested and uninformed leadership.

Our message is clear. While accepting that higher education institutions and, more particularly,
teaching staff are the main actors in delivering these pedagogical changes, it is the
responsibility of public authorities to create the environment and incentive for action.

The tricky part is how these recommendations will be received by national authorities, especially at a time when there is a high level of Euro-skepticism in most member states and where the Commission's initiatives are not always welcomed. The 15 recommendations in the report would provide the perfect platform for a major leap forward in European higher education, especially if they could be implemented across the entire EU, but first we need to replace all the shoulds with shall and will and there must be real financing behind it all. However this is a major step forward and recognition from a high level that online learning is no longer an optional extra but a fundamental element of all education. Maybe the supertanker is beginning to change course, if only marginally.

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