Higher Education is about to crash and burn, says Seth

by Andy Polaine on May 3, 2010

in General

I couldn’t help but agree with Seth Godin’s summary of the coming melt-down in higher education – it’s an almost perfect echo of the themes I have been harping on about for ages. I also happened to read it shortly after finding the short video of me talking about the dysfunctional nature of education at DOTT Cornwall (I was very jittery – too much coffee before speaking and a sand glass with only four minutes to get it all out). It’s nice to know it’s not just me thinking this way.

You should read Seth’s complete post, but here’s the summary of the main reasons:

  1. Most colleges are organized to give an average education to average students.
  2. College has gotten expensive far faster than wages have gone up.
  3. The definition of ‘best’ is under siege.
  4. The correlation between a typical college degree and success is suspect.
  5. Accreditation isn’t the solution, it’s the problem.

Out of all of these, the last point is key because it contains the other four. Higher education institutions have based the value of their currencies (the degree you leave with) on the quality of its education and what you can do with the proof of that education afterwards. That currency’s value, like any currency, is entirely based on its reputation and scarcity – it is pretty much divorced from the reality on the ground. The convergence of the points Seth lists – along with shifts such as aging populations, changing business structures, the shift from industrial command and control thinking to a more networked, service and knowledge mode of thinking – are very real and most likely to coagulate into a big shift behind most of the major player’s backs. Seth sums it up well:

The only people who haven’t gotten the memo are anxious helicopter parents, mass marketing colleges and traditional employers. And all three are waking up and facing new circumstances.

Does this mean there is no future for higher education (and that I am out of a job)? I hope not. It’s not that places like Cambridge or Harvard are going to die out, it’s just that they’ll end up the way that most people view politics (in the UK at least) at the moment – highly bureaucratic monoliths that don’t appear to be very relevant to anyone’s lives anymore. That doesn’t sound to exciting to the average teenage school leaver if you ask me.

I think there is a place for higher education, but I think institutions must think radically for them to remain relevant. Instead of thinking about accreditation – either of themselves to government or of the students – they need to think about the service experience they offer. It’s the experience of higher education that has real value, not the delivery of knowledge. That’s the reason behind the COTEN Project that takes a service design approach to thinking about innovation in higher education.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Andrew May 3, 2010 at 8:25 am

The tragedy is that lots of people are thinking radically about such things … and there's some nice things happening (some of which you're involved with), but the highly bureaucratic monoliths will do almost anything to resist change, including the retrograde use of “change management” etc etc. Mind you, I'm more with Dylan Wilbanks on much of this … http://m.smh.com.au/national/education/vote-of-… .. some of Seth's solutions I hear coming from the monolith as well ..

2 Andy Polaine May 3, 2010 at 8:45 am

Hi Andrew – Yes, it's true, those huge monoliths do resist change, but
I think it's useful to bring it back down to the human level always.
Most people in those monoliths seem to desire change, but the thought
of the enormous effort involved or the lack of any real way of
thinking about what to do usually stymies it. Change in higher
education, for example, is the huge pile of washing up that we've all
let get mouldy and grim. Nobody wants to do it, but it's not going to
get any better. The paradox that I keep coming across is that most
people enjoy the results of change, but they hate the process of it
(just like learning…).

3 John Colette August 3, 2010 at 11:46 pm

Change is also mitigated at the level of internal verification. To be considered for an entry level position in Academia today you need a PhD – they also want academics to be “research active” even if that research is only functions to sustain the schema of professional rigour – the peer reviewed publication. It's possible to publish [particularly in the industries associated with the humanities] and to have never been read by an actual practitioner.

The experiences students seek – and in many ways the ones that are galvanising experiences in the undergraduate career – are often those least structured by the traditional academic process. Student centred learning – particularly in disciplines that have a high degree of industrial “craft” [let's take filmmaking as an example :-) ] are less able to be quantified as academic activity, in the way that it is understood to predicate research.

The university hasn't fundamentally changed since the middle ages, and in an age of increasing change, particularly in the domain of knowledge and its mediation – Universities are increasingly out of step with the world around them.

Academics are the last bunch to say wither “I don't really know” or moreover “I was wrong”. The culture [and its rewards] are inherently hierachical rather than service oriented. Change is disenfranchising for academics who value seniority acquired through often outmoded processes.

It does come back to the human level – people [not organisations] who “think differently”….

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