Keem Bay, Achill Island, Ireland

Mrig, A. and Sanaghan, P. (2019) The Future of Education: Will Higher Education Seize the Future or Fall Victim to IT? Academic Impressions

I’ve been away on two weeks holiday, which included a family wedding, to a lovely Ireland and a depressed England, where we avoided as much as possible the two ‘B’ words (Brexit and Boris – I’m not into schadenfreude).

As a result my blog has been neglected but then I’m hoping most of my readers are also enjoying a nice summer break, but if not, then here’s a report you might want to read and perhaps then also participate in the accompanying free webcast on July 25.

A brief description of what’s in the paper, and (of course) my own comments, follow.

HE in crisis

Apparently, it’s not just me that thinks that higher education systems are facing an existential crisis.

The online journal/HE training organisation Academic Impressions has held four previous Presidential Dialogues: Focus on the Future meetings. At each of these conversations, 3-6 college and university presidents gather in a small, intimate setting to discuss an issue facing higher-ed leadership in depth and consider practical strategies for how presidents can respond. After each of these meetings, the conversation’s findings are presented to the rest of the higher-ed sector in the form of a brief paper. This paper is the result of the fourth meeting.

The main challenges identified at the fourth meeting are as follows:

  • new populations of students who learn differently and are less prepared for higher education
  • new technology that threatens the very model of higher education itself
  • increased competition
  • ‘irreversible’ declines in state funding
  • a loss of respect/confidence in the public HE system

Four unforgiving paradoxes

The dialogue identified the following ‘four unforgiving paradoxes that higher-ed leaders will have to face’:

  • a business model that is broken (mainly because tuition does not cover the cost of educating students), but on which states and colleges are ‘doubling down’ 
  • current program priorities are undermining the relevance and value of HE (especially cutting liberal arts and not adequately supporting continuous and lifelong learning)
  • priority is on ‘business as usual’, while institutional governance structures inhibit the speedy innovation needed to meet the external challenges
  • although the value of a degree is increasing, public confidence in HE is waning.

Four strategies to navigate these paradoxes

The paper then offers four strategies:

  • improve student retention
  • focus on faculty who ‘get’ the need for change
  • adopt successful models of innovation (‘we don’t need to think outside the box; we need to re-design the box.’)
  • develop leadership capacity throughout the institution.

My comments

I think the analysis of the challenges is spot on, particularly regarding the USA. However, I think the strategies are weak, or rather insufficient.

The underlying problem in the USA is that higher education is no longer public, in the sense of the state adequately funding it. Although state funding has picked up somewhat from the aftermath of the 2008 economic recession, it is still in most states at or below the level prior to 2008, while costs in the meantime have increased considerably. As a result tuition fees and endowment funding have had to increase, but tuition is now reaching a ceiling for many families. Frankly, HE institutions themselves can do little about this without decimating the faculty and with it any attempt at quality. Americans are notoriously reluctant to pay taxes, but without state support HE becomes just too expensive for all but the very rich. This is a political and social issue that goes way beyond the management of individual institutions.

At the same time, many of the other pressures US universities and colleges are facing apply also to countries such as Canada where there is better state support, in particular the need for curricular reform to meet the changing demands of a digital society. And this is why I think the four strategies suggested in this paper are necessary but not sufficient. The paper does not address adequately the challenge and potential of technology and in particular the role of digital learning in curricular reform and in furthering the skills development needed in a digital age.

Nevertheless, I found the paper stimulating and would encourage you both to read it and participate in the free webinar if you can – but make sure you get a break!

Dovedale, Staffordshire/Derbyshire


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