20 October 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
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Treat the cause, not the symptom of student protests

Chicken pox marks only appear on the skin several days after people have been infected with the virus. When we consider the brief rise of the ‘Luddites’ in the second decade of the 19th century the same is true: the machinery they attacked was fully operational in the mid-16th century.

Much of what we see today as innovative and-or disruptive was around long before it became visible and could be identified.

Today, rising unrest among black students at universities in South Africa and the United States is the result of long-festering concerns about rights, access and particularly economics.

What seems to have been forgotten is that there were similar movements, particularly in the United States, during the 1960s and 1970s around civil rights, the war in Vietnam and nuclear arms as well as similar concerns to today’s about the environment and sustainability.

While there were protests on campuses both around particular issues and against universities’ seemingly immovable response to student unrest, many students and faculty moved off campus and offered free and open courses, many of which eventually filtered into on-campus programmes.

Of even greater interest is the fact that at the same time, new universities and programmes within universities were created both in the US and in the United Kingdom where the Open University – a mega university of more than 250,000 students who study via distance learning and on campus – was formed.

As with chickenpox, much of this current infection, which has gone almost unnoticed, has been gnawing away at higher education’s infrastructure globally.

Academics have advocated and are now seeing significant movement on open access to research via the internet.

There has been a rise in Open Educational Resources or OER, with free and open textbooks, course materials and even courses themselves as exemplified by MOOCs – massive open online courses – and the Khan Academy. MOOCs come in two different forms, depending on whether they are instructor-driven or student-driven.

Student need

What is significant about the Khan Academy and MOOCs is that they are, to a large extent, driven by student need.

The 2014 Lumina Foundation-funded Foresight study at the University of Houston looked forward to changes in student needs in the year 2025. Six areas were investigated.

Learning, the principle focus of a university, explored how individuals would be acquiring knowledge and skills, within or outside of an institution. It also focused on life beyond the university, whether graduates would end up in employed jobs or earning outside traditional employment structures. Other areas included living and lifestyles, leisure-recreation and civic life.

What is important is that issues raised in the 1960s and 1970s are becoming more visible and will become more prevalent in future.

The balance of power is shifting from higher education institutions to students. In the United States, related issues are now being voiced by academics.

Globally, the top-down model of a university driven by history and by external funding, particularly government funding, is shifting, as fiscal resources diminish. This is being reinforced by changing economics that are leaving many graduates with credible degrees either jobless or working in jobs for which they are overqualified.

One must ask whether the issues raised by black students in South Africa and the US are more than about access to knowledge.

It seems, globally, looking at the rising costs of higher education coupled with changes in the social and economic fabric, that the protests at or about universities are a surrogate for a much larger set of issues.

Two sides of the same coin

What makes this complex is that many of the issues, including rising costs, also impact on faculty who have to deal with their own internal economic pressures.

More importantly, if universities are to accede to these changing pressures, academics will be faced with issues that challenge the entire education process from traditional scholarly degrees to their function within the university.

Many in the US are already facing these issues as the number of academic posts is shrinking and they are finding themselves overqualified, underpaid and with little opportunity to take the traditional path to promotion and tenure.

Students and faculty are faced with similar problems and in many ways represent the opposite sides of the same coin.

Today, there are a rising number of alternatives that bypass traditional content pathways.

These include free and open courses, and alternative institutions providing courses that are low cost and transferable to traditional universities or have certificates of competency acceptable in job markets. Additionally, there are now microcredits of various types acceptable towards employment or academic credit.

Given open universities and similar programmes, content acquisition is not the main issue.

As the Lumina Foundation-funded study focused on 2025 shows, issues of content are being weighed against other values that students see as important. This is critical since many students are no longer the traditional ones who, in the past, moved straight from secondary institutions to post-secondary institutions.

Therefore, one must ask whether the demands for free and open access to traditional universities are surrogates for larger issues not clearly articulated or understood, perhaps even by the protesters themselves.

Perhaps the global concerns of students, manifested in particular by South African students and students of colour, are symptoms of something bigger.

If the Foresight exercise speaks to the present by sensing the future, the problem transcends universities and the education system itself.

Until students and faculty see that their concerns are aligned, recognising that there are deeper problems than educational programmes and their functioning, we will continue to avoid the hard questions and treat the symptoms and not the causes.

Dr Tom Abeles is president of Sagacity, Inc, an international strategic foresight consulting firm specialising in sustainable agriculture development and production. He also edits the academic journal On the Horizon that focuses on post secondary education futures, practice and policy.
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