Increasingly, the industrialised education systems of the 20th century are being criticized for producing a skills mismatch and failing to reflect the new and evolving requirements of the labour force in a 21st century economy. The challenge for universities lies in adapting to the changing needs and expectations of a knowledge society powered by decentralised networks, hyper-individualisation and technological development. As a result, the case to be made for the role and value of universities in the economy is becoming less and less convincing, especially in immediate cost-benefit terms. institutionalised post-secondary education will no longer be able to match and keep up with an increasingly complex reality characterised by an accelerating pace of change. While the fall of the university as an educational hub is a future scenario with low probability, the impact would be significant – a wildcard. In such a scenario, the very nature of the economy would become significantly restructured, which would have implications for the entire occupational sphere.
We continue to be convinced that investing in higher education and universities as they stand today will yield significant returns. The problem is, however, that we are propping up an antiquated system; we are investing in a model that is no longer adept at encouraging the type of economic growth we are seeking. We are so preoccupied with investing in the university model that the gap between what we think is happening and what is actually happening will only be further exaggerated – the ROI will inevitably continue to drop. To borrow an analogy from the music industry, universities are still selling education in an album format – the four-year bachelor’s degree in a specified major, usually coupled with a core curriculum. Under these circumstances, the academic year typically commences with “what will we cover this semester?” Rather, the emphasis should be placed on “what will we discover this semester?”
As our notion of work continues to change, there is increased pressure put on education systems to boost their relevance. fixed, multi-year education programs are no longer adequately equipping individuals with the responsiveness needed in the job market – there is no room for agility and flexibility. We live in a world characterised by fluidity and mobility, increased democratisation and unprecedented access to information enabled by technological innovation. There is a shift towards an employment model that constitutes a collaborative, transparent, technology- enabled, rapid-cycle way of doing business through networks and ecosystems of ‘intellectual mercenaries’. People move from role to role and across organisational boundaries more freely than ever. Accelerating innovation drives global markets and products and these demand talent pools and systems that can be rapidly assembled and reconfigured. Business leaders and customers alike expect agility, scalability and the necessary skills on demand.
Radical disruptions are occurring all around us and across all dimensions of the educational space, but there is less and less room for universities to play, even despite current efforts to modernise higher education. Emerging narratives, such as ‘no child left behind’, ‘teaching to test’, and ‘race to the top’, are simply perpetuating the education paradigm of the day at the expense of real progress and true growth. Universities still focus on providing knowledge, rather than guiding the students’ self- development of competencies and attitudes.
At some point, we began to confuse qualifications with competence, defining today’s successful graduates as technically qualified in a superficial way – “knowers”. We still view a four- year diploma as though it might tell us something about common- sense, good logic and leadership. However, in a future with no standardised higher education, “knowers” would be overtaken by “doers”. Evaluation would be less about arbitrary qualifications and more focused on an individual’s ability to do, which includes more character-driven evaluations, blind auditions and case interviews, as well as evaluation through a variety of intra- and extra- institutional means such as travelling and starting a business.
The emphasis we place on university education as a marker for competence is not only irrational, it is not sustainable. in order to be somewhat competitive in the labour market today, individuals are required to complete several years of standardised higher education, often amassing insurmountable debt and creating “student loan bubbles” in many markets around the world. it’s a necessary evil, since in this age a master’s degree is regarded as the new high school diploma.
Generation of change
The reality is that the existence of universities today is largely based on the values of previous generations and is invariably out of sync with the norms and expectations of current and future generations. What is becoming increasingly clear is that current generations no longer accept the existing model of higher education. for them, it is less about teaching and more about learning. Change in the way higher education is approached and practised resides in a seemingly inevitable generational shift that may prompt the fall of universities. Just as the Baby Boomers have changed politics, Generation X have changed family and Generation y have changed work, Generation Z are likely to change education.
However, we are already beginning to witness the tides of change in an emerging class of young urban creatives – a slice of Generation Y – who are intent on being equally as successful as previous generations, only in their own way. Typically born of suburban comfort, indoctrinated with the transcendent power of education and infected by the conviction that not only do they deserve to pursue their dreams, but they should also profit from them. Such adamant young urban creatives will no doubt also pass on their growing disdain for standardised, institutional and university-led higher education to future generations. They represent a movement which is ready to trade in a college degree for on-the-job learning, leading to a smarter workforce and the fall of universities as a patronage system for philosophers.
This growing class of young urban creatives tend to idolise several of today’s successful tech entrepreneurs as the archetype for prosperity. That is, individuals such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg – all college dropouts – who (1) challenge the notion that learning through extra-institutional means is in some way less credible, and (2) support the proposition that a degree from a prestigious university is not necessary for success.
Further, disenfranchised by their experiences in attempting to bridge the gap between education and work, Generation y and Generation Z are eager to explore a range of alternative possibilities, or create their own. in rejecting the notion of institutional learning as a whole, parents from Generation y have also been driving the growth of the home schooling movement. home schooling is increasingly becoming mainstream in the US, as the share of school-age kids who are home-schooled has doubled between 1999 and 2012, from 1.7 to 3.4 percent. ‘Unschooling’ is also growing in popularity and describes an approach in which parents do not authoritatively direct the child’s education, but rather, interact with the child based on the child’s own interests, leaving them free to explore and learn as their interests develop.
Universities maintain a centuries-old history; a cradle of Western culture, thought and science and a tool of equality and welfare in societies. They are symbolic of our desire for wisdom and our pursuit of education. in a post-university world where universities cease to be the educational hubs of our civilisations, learning would change from just-in-case learning, where you learn all sorts of knowledge that you might need sometime in the future, to just- in-time learning, where you learn tools that you will need for an upcoming task. Knowledge will be increasingly unimportant, since search engines and intelligent expert systems can provide the knowledge you need. Instead, learning tools will be increasingly important: methodology, analysis, design, criticism, programming and the scientific method, for example.
In the same way that access to information has become democratised, so too will access to education, thus eliminating privilege and expanding the scope of opportunity for many. Driven by technological advances, individuals will become empowered by the processes, tools and methods that enable growth and prosperity. Now-unconventional learning and teaching mechanisms will flourish in a time of digital expansion and as social media platforms continue to proliferate. in this regard, the growth of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) will likely fill the university void as decentralised educational hubs, at least for a time. However, several MOOCs are largely predicated upon our existing model of standardised education and are primarily based on the conventional delivery-retention approach to education and knowledge transfer. in the future, knowledge will instead be spread through networks, and education will reside in interconnected ecosystems based on co-creation; learning by doing. it will no longer be a linear teaching process; education will become multilateral. The model of standardised higher education is no longer viable as individuals increasingly demand a hyper-personalised experience attuned to their specific interests. Universities simply do not possess the flexibility to accommodate the hyper-specialised needs of the economy or the diversity of interests embedded within the fabric of modern, urbanised society. This diversity should be embraced, and if it is embraced, it is likely to spawn a new era of discovery and innovation in the aftermath of the fall of universities.
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