Finding the formula for higher education

If you read the pages of political and business magazines these days, then sooner or later you’ll come across an article on higher education that will, almost certainly, suggest that the traditional university model across the developed world is falling apart: buildings, infrastructure and equipment are becoming too expensive; people with great academic potential are being lured away to industry; governments are interfering too much and paying too little; students cannot afford the cost of a university degree; disruptive technologies are creating havoc amongst the old institutions; and so on. Some add that this toxic cocktail of problems will cause many universities to go bankrupt.

The latter prediction one can justifiably take with a grain of salt. For the past decade or so the demise of institutions has been predicted again and again, but none of any significance has in fact collapsed. Some no doubt are living precariously, but they are all still there. Many universities have learned to do what business always does – to respond to financial challenges by cutting costs suddenly and dramatically; redundancies are not so rare now in this sector. But the institutions survive.

And yet there is change in the air. New online courses (including MOOCs) create new learning environments and outcomes (the latter including alarmingly high drop-out rates). Interaction with external partners has become the norm for almost everyone. Research is now often aligned with the drive for national technological innovation.

If we are looking for new models for universities, we need to find an agreed framework for evaluating these. Such a framework must address the two most important questions for assessing higher education: (1) what pedagogical aims are we pursuing? – and (2) what impact do we want scholarship and research to have? Too often I find people discussion higher education innovation in terms of capacity (‘we are doing this because we can do it’) rather than in terms of principle (‘we are doing this because we should do it’).

If universities do go bankrupt, I suspect it is because we are no longer clear about what higher education is for. There is of course more than one good model. But let us at least be clear about what these models are, and why they are desirable.

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5 Comments on “Finding the formula for higher education”

  1. V.H Says:

    In the UK university education costs £10,000 per year for four years, or £40k. Then add living expenses of another £60. Total 100k. Now say that you decided to teach. You’d get 25k per annum basic.
    Recently I visited DoEd recruitment roadshow held at IMMA in Dublin where in order to fill vacancies in the school system Irish graduate s are required.
    It seems to be a bankrupt policy when given the volume of unemployed grads that they cannot afford to live in the areas where the schools are situated.
    This comment is to show that the fundamentals are truly garbled when the bread to the university meat is so insane. There’s no place in the UK where the single teacher can afford on his own, a house and then a family. Basically the teaching profession has ceased to exist, and teaching has entered the region of the wealthy volunteer supported by their own private personal means or as has become clear in London, their partners.

  2. Hurielle Says:

    Alas, everything VH says about teaching can be applied to all ‘public service’ professions, each requiring more and more ‘previous experience’ etc. Does this in fact point to an over-supply of graduates or an under-supply of housing everywhere?


  3. Is it a bad sign that no universities are “failing” (i.e. going out of business). I presume that, at this point, we are all agreed that central planning does not work that well and that a competitive environment harnesses a certain Darwinian mechanism to drive improvement in institutions. However, if no institution is allowed fail (generally for political reasons), does that not frustrate this natural drive towards improvement?

  4. Greg Foley Says:

    The key problem with the (predominantly) state-funded third level sector is that the expectations of it are completely unrealistic. Governments have a vested interest in increasing participation rates (to keep young people off the dole essentially) and/or because of completely ill-conceived ideas about how a third level education relates to the so-called ’21st century’ workplace. And they want us to do this with less state support and no fee income (in Ireland at least) – hence the obsession with the Asian and Brazilian student markets. Not only that, but we are now expected to be hotbeds of industrial and business innovation, the springboards to economic recovery – the knowledge economy! The problem is that the politicians making the decisions about higher education simply don’t understand it and only listen to civil servants and advisers who don’t understand it either. And, to be honest, many of those in senior management in Universities are very detached from the undergraduate experience and talk about education in a language that is unrecognizable to those of us at the ‘coalface’. The Higher Level education system in Ireland – and the UK – is creaking under the strain of these expectations and something is going to give – sooner rather than later in my view.


  5. Fact are important in this debate – and VH has some of his wrong – loans for tuition fees are £9,000 per year not £10,000 mots UK degree courses are 3 years not 4; loans for support are means tested with a maximum loan of £3862 with non-repayable grant of upto £3387

    So rather than the fanciful £100K (Medicine, Vets and Architecture excepted) – the loan part of UK HE is less than £40,000


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