Can our old-school universities keep up?

One day when we look back through history and try to work out what happened to the universities, we may very well be looking hard at the current decade. At present the tertiary education system is not meeting the needs of students adequately. Complaints about the prohibitively high costs of tuition, overpaid vice-chancellors and senior managers, underemployment of students with certain degrees, the rejection of open intellectual inquiry, and the culture of promoting diversity of external characteristics rather than ideas, all point to a future decline in patronage of universities.

Some universities are trying to stay relevant and cater to the needs of students by differentiating their product from their competitor’s. The University of Melbourne and The University of Western Australia have both structured their degrees in a similar fashion to US schools. General undergraduate degrees precede a postgraduate specialist degree designed to separate you from the pack. The University of New England offers flexible learning options that allow you to choose to study only a unit or two for your own interest, or to test the water before committing to a full degree. They are aiming to cater to students in a way that suits them, rather than forcing on students the four subjects a semester, two semesters a year, on campus study model. This method may not suit everyone, but tailoring courses to suit students will only benefit the consumers of higher education.

At present, there is very limited competition in the tertiary education market. But the tertiary education system’s shortcomings may allow new suppliers to enter. The internet is lowering the transaction costs and the capital costs required to provide a high-quality education to a wide range of potential students. But universities today aren’t allowed to set their own prices, so there is no price competition. The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) regulations make it difficult for universities to differentiate their product to attract more students, and so universities spend massive amounts on advertising, the last avenue left to them.

It isn’t their fault specifically, as they are hamstrung by government rules and regulations which prevent innovation in the sector. The cost of gaining a tertiary education is ever growing, burdening students with debt they can’t afford and that can take decades to pay off. Some students never repay their debt. This system cannot last. Students will not voluntarily sign up for an overpriced degree that won’t get them a job. This needs to change, otherwise a new tertiary education model will usurp the hallowed position universities now hold.

Furthermore, the lack of intellectual diversity on campus and the lack of tolerance for diverse opinions creates an environment conducive to an echo chamber. Favourable opinions are reinforced and praised, regardless of their veracity, and dissenting opinions are locked out. Universities are infantilising students, mollycoddling their sensibilities at the expense of freedom of speech. University is supposed to be a place to explore radical ideas, taboo subjects and to speak freely and honestly about any topic. Professors and students shamed and verbally abused for their opinions by radical students, undermines the very nature and purpose of the university system, which is to broaden intellectual horizons and find the truth. Aggressive student activism anchored in collectivist identity politics is stifling educational institutions and creating an environment that promotes self-censorship to avoid criticism, and encourages victimhood as a mechanism for self-promotion.

So, with many issues plaguing tertiary institutions, what will the future look like? The majority of study will probably be done online, as this reduces the costs associated with a physical campus. Lectures might be pre-recorded by lecturers for consumption at the student’s leisure. Exams and assessments might be done at flexible times to suit the student’s work schedule. Courses could be done year-round at any time, with any number of subjects undertaken, as the students don’t need to sit in front of a lecturer to have access to knowledge. Learning will be more self-driven, and less coordinated.

What prevents innovation currently is the accreditation of degree-issuing institutions. But that doesn’t mean that individual professors disenfranchised by their university aren’t trying to make some headway. Jordan B. Peterson, clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto has expressed his desire to “bring accredited online humanities education to as many people as possible around the world … and offer education of the highest possible quality everywhere at 1/10 the price or less.” As more and more professors move to a decentralised and easily accessible model of tertiary education, costs will fall and real competition will be introduced back into the sector. Universities risk disappearing in the long term if they ignore the needs of the students and their desire for a quality education. If the current government regulated leviathan that is the tertiary education sector can be honestly outcompeted by passionate erudite professors, students will reap the benefits of a new age of education.

Decentralisation of university level courses by independent individuals through online portals will offer diverse learning opportunities tailored to student needs, an open and honest discussion of ideas with a commitment to free speech, a low-cost degree, and access to the best teachers around the world. Hindsight is clear, and when we look back it will seem obvious that the current arrangements were unstable, and unable to provide the best outcomes for people who seek a high quality,  affordable education. Will we learn from our mistakes and encourage new models of education, or will the established institutions use the power of government to crush competition? Only time will tell, but the actions of millions of future students choosing the best option for themselves gives us great hope for the future of education, whatever form it takes.

Llew Cross

2 Comments on "Can our old-school universities keep up?"

  1. Kevin Brennan | 29/06/2018 at 5:32 pm |

    A good deal of University life is not in the textbooks, tutorials and lectures. It is in the sharing of the education process with your peers and the growing into the career group, through socialising and learning with and from each other. Data you can learn from textbooks or computers, but understanding how it works, and why it works, is often learnt from a similar voice searching for the wisdom of a deep knowledge of a subject.

  2. Andrew Russell | 30/06/2018 at 11:00 am |

    Your argument is compelling but it has a flaw which was discussed in Bryan Caplan’s “The Case Against Education.”

    Specifically, you’re presuming that the economic effect of education is to increase worker productivity through expanding a worker’s knowledge/understanding. Now of course some education actually does this, however education has another effect (which Caplan argues to be the dominant effect).

    What the education system also does is serve to signal which people make not just the most productive but also the most conscientious and conformist workers… the kind of people that work well in large formal organizations like big corporations and bureaucracies. In this situation, venerable-old-institutions that are rigid, inflexible and demanding actually have an ADVANTAGE because they certify workers whom are willing to comply with arbitrary rules and whom will accept having their self-determination curtailed.

    So what does an employer see in someone who has pursued very flexible, self-directed study? Someone whom is intelligent, but also potentially a maverick. Maybe someone ‘antisocial’ and less likely to work with groups if their study was done from home.

    As workplaces get more “social” (which is a very unfortunate development but is occurring in far too many industries these days), we can expect more formal and ‘old fashioned’ college experiences might become more rather than less prized. Autodidacts may have the human capital but do they have the conformism and conscientiousness prized by large organizational employers?

    Given Caplan’s argument, I think we need a change in what employers look for, in order for alternative models of higher education to thrive. And in order to change what employers look for, it seems a large change in the culture of “work” needs to happen. Work needs to become more flexible, less dependent on social cohesion/adjustment/conformity, and more individualized. Which in turn means we need to make the business environment friendlier to smaller firms (which implies lessening regulatory loads and tax burdens).

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