Higher Education is about to crash and burn, says Seth

May 3, 2010

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.