In an article in Harvard Business Review, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Becky Frankiewicz highlighted six reasons why higher education needed to be “disrupted”. By disruption, they meant that colleges (universities) needed to be shaken up to enhance their output, so that graduates will always retain competitive advantage, in terms of employment prospects, over those without higher education qualifications. They argued that the higher the number of graduates in a country, the less competitive advantage those graduates have over non-graduates when it comes to employment prospects. Since the outbreak of covid-19 though, several businesses have closed down and regrettably, many more will follow suit (BBC, Financial Times). Going forward, rather than produce graduates with skills tailored to fit existing job positions, Universities will, more than ever, be required to produce graduates with multidisciplinary skills to solve problems that are complex/multivariate.
In an unrelated article titled “The Future University”, Eurig Scandrett took the argument further. He linked the very commodification of education and research through the creation of quasi markets to the destruction of the nature of Universities as theatres of learning and academic pursuit. If there was any hope of an end in sight to this rat race and ultra-competition for funding that has turned Universities to ‘commodification’ index target chasing entities, recent statement by the Convener of Universities Scotland betrays such hope.
The two articles mentioned were written before the covid-19 pandemic strangled most activities around the globe but the authors recognised that Universities were in crisis, albeit from different points of view.
With the pandemic came the lockdown and social distancing orders by several governments, meaning several employees, including those of higher education institutions, have had to work virtually. Zoom, BlackBoard Collaborate, Skype, Microsoft Teams, etc. have become some of the most popular mediums of education and information dissemination by employees in lockdown. Beside the intrinsic shortcomings of these various mediums, the facts suggest that successful online education/teaching requires much more than just a suitable platform (Openteach). While many still prefer the face-to-face contact between teachers and students, studies in America have also shown that online delivery of education costs more to develop, deliver and maintain mainly due to increased marketing costs (Forbes).
But beyond the pandemic, what is the way forward for universities? Obviously, the attendant economic downturn that has been predicted by many ‘experts’ (PWC, IMF) may necessitate further culling of already stretched higher education funding. Should it? Access, especially by those who can least afford it and thus need it most, may also be adversely affected. Again, should it? There is no doubt that the challenging financial standing of Universities may be further exacerbated by the expected decrease in the number of international students from outside of Europe (the geese that lay the golden eggs). The adverse effect of this drop in number of international students from outside Europe will hit the ‘bigger’ Universities hardest as they often have a higher ratio of these higher-tuition-fees paying students on their books (BBC). But beyond budgets and attainment figures, methinks there are greater challenges ahead for Universities and those hoping to attend post covid-19 pandemic.
The recent proliferation of technology and technological breakthroughs and the rapid advancements in the different bodies of knowledge have necessitated a paradigm shift, never seen before since the scientific revolution of the 1970s (Peters and Besley), and a shift in focus from the ‘truth’ of normal science to the ‘quality’ of post normal science. We also know that most of us have, over time, become more risk tolerant. Social media, AI (artificial intelligence), GMOs (genetically modified organisms), mRNA, DNA and other similar vaccines with the capability of editing human DNA through genome editing truly blur the lines of morality and ethics. The challenges posed by these ‘advancements’ hit at the very heart of human existence.
To remain relevant, Universities must maintain public trust. To do this, they must show leadership by shifting their main focus from chasing targets that determine their share of public funding to convincing their new students of the new world (that may defer markedly from that which they (students) came to study) – a world were there are multiple valid perspectives; where problems are increasingly complex and multivariate and most times, can only be solved via a multidisciplinary approach. Events during this pandemic such as unresolved fundamental disputes between professionals and contradicting guidelines and professional advice from those we expect to know better have proven that, indeed, we are now firmly in a post normal science era. To me, there lies the battle for the soul of Universities.