Is Traditional University Education in Peril?

Is the traditional university education in peril? On paper at least, Universities have never been so numerous or so accessible to the masses of the countries they serve. This summer will see over 8 million new graduates emerging from institutions across the west alone with the developing world rapidly playing catch up in the field of university placements. China alone will be adding 30 million new higher education student places this year.

But it’s not just access to a university education that has blossomed over the past few decades – the cost of an education has gone up massively too, reaching the point where the potential cost of going to university and the debts incurred have become so large that student applications are beginning to fall. It is true that those with a higher education qualification continue to earn more than those without over their lifetime, by some estimates at least $500,000 more. This number however is beginning to dwindle with increasing numbers of graduates struggling to find suitable work following graduation that justifies the escalating cost of their degrees.

Further changes are also putting pressure on the ancient system of university scholarship. Where students have for centuries assembled in their universities to absorb the knowledge of scholars, the emergence of the 24/7 society and the influence of new technologies has led to a surge in demand for education delivered at a price and time of the students choosing, not the institution.

Two main factors are leading the push for change. The first one is the spiralling cost of higher education. Partly due to government subsidy protecting it from competition and partly through the labour intensive nature of the university sector costs have rocketed in recent years, made only higher by the withdrawal of subsidy and increase in tuition fees required by successive government’s post 2008.

The second issue is the social one. Traditionally University education as the last step before graduate employment. However in today’s world where workers of all levels will on average change careers at least 5 times in their working lives education is becoming a lifelong activity. However few working adults can afford to take the years out from their jobs in order to pursue a traditional campus based University or college education, thus fuelling the rise in demand for evening and distance learning education.

However these two factors are pushed further by a third – the rampant rise of technology which has impacted all aspects of society and life over the past twenty years. From affordable computing, tablets and phones to the all-present Internet the possibilities open to a potential student have grown astoundingly.

Game Changer: The MOOC

Indeed, taking advantage of the abilities of the World Wide Web to disseminate information widely and cheaply has been the rise of a new style of course, the MOOC or “Massive Online Open Course”. A new form of course that allows a student to get an education for the fraction of a course of a regular university and have their materials presented by so-called star lecturers.

Despite the promised potential however MOOC’s have struggled to truly take off. The concept did not immediately deliver the hopes of its founders and struggled to gain ground in the face of traditional education. As courses were largely uncertified and students had to make little commitment the dropout rates of potential students were extremely high.

However things have been greatly improving since the start with several prominent private education groups pairing up with prominent American universities to bolster the field including such names as Harvard, MIT and Stanford.  Monetizing the field has been accomplished in several ways. Some groups have succeeded in making profit by providing the course for free but charging to have the qualification certified. Others are finding that, unlimited by the class sizes of a traditional university they can offer the same course to many more students at a time than before – hundreds if not thousands at a time. This allows them to benefit from economies of scale, offering their courses at a vastly reduced cost, in some cases up to a third of the cost of a traditional campus based education.

Winners and Losers

As they gain market share, MOOCS threaten to radically reshape the educational landscape, but not all providers will be affected the same way. Some, especially the big name groups such as Stanford, Harvard and Oxford could stand to benefit enormously. There will always be a place for those educational establishments that attract the very best students and such institutions can benefit and profit enormously from having their materials made available to a greater number of students.

The big losers are likely to be those institutions lower down the ranking tables. Institutions typically populated by students who could not get a place at one of the more prestigious institutions and are typically in education more out of necessity than desire. For such students, the opportunity to attend, albeit virtually the lectures of leading academics from top universities, learn from the same materials but pay a fraction of the cost is a huge enticement.

In many ways, this is the automation of the education industry. Where workers have traditionally found that new machines and technology have made their jobs redundant, so too are lecturers and universities threatened with the very real need to adapt or die in the face of changing circumstances. If a traditional course had one lecturer for 50 students a new MOOC might have the same lecturer but for 5000, or 50,000. There is no longer a need for hundreds of professor in hundreds of universities teaching the same course.

Other losers are not just the teachers themselves but the faculties and institutions that depend on them. Indeed if one takes the idea that Universities are knowledge factories of a sort then there are entire towns and cities whose economy is effectively buoyed by these institutions who stand to lose heavily if the local learning industry collapses.

But many will stand to gain above all the students about whom education is supposed to be about. They will benefit from access to a higher standard of education delivered by some of the very best lecturers in the business, delivered at times and places to fit around their hectic working lives.  And it’s not just in the west that the benefits of wider MOOC distribution is being felt – across the world emerging economies such as Brazil and China are benefitting from a new cheap way to provide higher education to their citizens while bypassing the costly expenditure of building a traditional state higher education sector that can accommodate all their aspiring students.

The real value however in MOOC’s will always come down to accreditation. If Governments want to benefit from a cost efficient alternative to the traditional university situation they would do well to partner with educational providers and establish clear certification for online courses and providers. Brazil already does this in part, requiring students doing an online course to finish with a government-run exam.

The traditional university education is indeed imperilled – the vested interests in it from the lecturers and the local communities alone will have no choice but to adapt to a rapidly changing world where a traditional 3 or 4 year degree is no longer the only standard. But for those that can reinvent themselves the opportunity to become national or global players is there for the taking.