A tipping point is being reached in post-secondary education, particularly for traditional colleges and universities. This tipping point is taking place over an extended period of time and has been precipitated by the perceived need of gaining qualifications to gain employment, backed up by historic data of graduate earnings. The capacity to meet this expectation exists in developed countries, but is lacking in the developing world, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa.
While universities were traditionally seen as a way to bring scholars together to focus on the life of the mind, since the mid-19th century, there has been an increased realisation that a greater emphasis on skills is needed to meet the rapid development of technology in all sectors.
That demand exploded at the end of the two World Wars as military forces disbanded and returning soldiers needed skills for employment. Today institutions in both the developed and developing world are faced with the same problems but from two different perspectives.
Data shows that college or university graduates have a higher earning potential than those who start work after leaving school. It is also understood that regardless of other post-secondary programmes, primarily vocational programmes that may have equivalent earning potential, the college/university path has upward income and social mobility.
While alternative paths, such as a technical certification, might allow the individual to purchase economic parity in lifestyle, they do not carry the same potential for social mobility in employment and civic participation.
Thus, there are pressures for individuals to attend colleges and universities. However, in developing countries, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa, many are finding that their diplomas are not direct tickets to the world of employment.
In the developed world, the data shows that unemployment upon graduation is low. In developing countries it shows that, even in highly promoted science or technology areas, this is not necessarily the case. Thus, while one does not deny the benefits of a post-secondary university education, these may, today and in the future, prove to be problematic.
Two other issues need careful consideration. The first, well documented in the literature, is that many students lack basic cognitive skills, such as reading, writing and mathematics – the 3Rs. The other issue is an increased emphasis on softer skills, defined as creativity, collaboration and capacity building – the 3Cs.
A Lumina Foundation study by the University of Houston suggests that by 2025 these latter skills will need to be expanded to as many as 12Cs. These soft skills include such areas as caring, candidness, consciousness and compassion.
This is in response to a growing need within the workplace as well as within the larger civic community to prepare people for participation in both civic and economic life. Faculty in discipline-defined universities and colleges are neither equipped for delivering these skills nor promoted if they are able to.
Jobseeker becomes jobsought
The arrival and ubiquity of ‘big data’, ‘deep learning’ and intelligent systems such as IBM’s Watson, a question-answering computer system, are changing the relationships of students and institutions with respect to larger society and the workplace.
In the past, students graduated, received a diploma and other documentation of their previous record of knowledge, skills and experience acquisition. Individuals then packaged these and presented them to potential employers or civic organisations in the hope they would be hired. Employers then spent considerable time sorting through such materials to find the right person to hire.
Today, using a variety of techniques, such as ‘gamification’, employers are able to establish the criteria they are looking for and rapidly sort through larger databases of potential employees to determine from whom they wish to receive additional information via, for instance, interviews.
In other words, instead of individuals trying to sort through potential employers, it is the employers who will initiate the search for the skillsets they wish to acquire in the form of new hires. Sophisticated intelligent computer systems invert the normal process of matching individuals with needs before the employer has to scan large numbers of applications.
What is more critical is that such systems may include both the traditional cognitive skills provided by discipline-oriented institutions as well as the softer skills needed in the workplace.
Traditionally, graduates expected that their academic portfolio including diplomas, resumes, micro-credits and similar credentials provided the stamp needed to gain entrance into the labour market. The new system rapidly scans for employer needs so the traditional portfolio becomes support and validation rather than a ‘ticket’ for entry. The jobseeker of the past will now become the sought.
Changes in teaching staff and qualifications
The ramifications for colleges and universities are significant. While not yet fully recognised and confronted, there is a shift taking place, which can particularly be seen in the United States. The number of traditional tenure track faculty is diminishing and the number of ‘at will’ faculty, primarily involved in teaching, is increasing.
While there is strong recognition and support for academic research and scholarly activities, institutional hiring practices demonstrate that there is a decreasing need for people to fulfil traditional academic roles and an increasing need to employ faculty to extend basic education skills beyond those acquired in secondary schools.
This becomes increasingly problematic as teachers in secondary schools gain credentials that are arguably equivalent to those provided by post-secondary institutions. Additionally, there are numerous programmes providing credentials that are increasingly being accepted by colleges and universities as credits towards diplomas.
In other words, universities’ ‘rent-seeking’ hegemony over required courses is being subverted. In a sense, the shift in hiring practices towards lower-cost non-tenure track faculty is almost an unconscious response to the needs of students and to emerging alternative ways of acquiring credit.
This problem may shortly become more serious as the world of employment begins to adopt, at a greater rate, the methods for hiring discussed above. Increasingly, there are alternative credentials being acquired that aren’t tied to or part of college or university diplomas.
Additionally, many of these skills are better validated by experience and are thus not best communicated in traditional resume and diploma formats. These can often be identified by large datasets manifest by psychometric testing such as ‘gamification’.
So, in addition to the growth in alternative credentials, the college or university diploma, essentially an entrance identifier to the world of work and civic life, has seen its cachet diminished or repositioned in a more competitive world.
This should be of considerable concern to educational systems globally, particularly universities and colleges in the developing world that are rushing headlong to adopt the models of the developed world that are now under increasing transformational pressures themselves.
One of the emergent and expanding directions for post-secondary education, long the domain of some graduate programmes, is ‘competency-based’ certification. In its basic form it defines an area, mutually establishes competencies to be attained by individuals and then allows students to move as rapidly as they wish without the constraints of traditional credit hours.
One such programme is that offered by the private company, Straighterline, which has a basic fee for mastering materials certified by third parties and acceptable for transfer to a number of traditionally accredited colleges and universities to be applied to a diploma or degree.
Other traditional universities at both the graduate and undergraduate levels are moving in a similar direction and at fixed prices that are substantively cheaper than the traditional tuition model.
Most of these programmes are non-campus based. This lowers overheads. At its core it is a restructuring of the whole teaching process. These institutions and programmes depend more on highly competent faculty working with students and fewer faculty engaged in the traditional research role. Universities are being deconstructed and their missions are changing fast.
Dr Tom Abeles is an international consultant and a former tenured faculty member in higher education futures and sustainability. He is currently working in sustainable agriculture in East Africa. The Lumina study and a series of articles based on the future of work are the subject of a forthcoming themed issue of On the Horizon of which Dr Abeles is editor.
Frankly, it is time that universities started to have more agency in leading the world instead of being led in a fast race towards self-destruction. This discourse about 'change' and the 'future' is tiring, often simply empty rhetoric used by managers to impose 'change'. And it robs academic life of its vital lymph: thinking time! Is the latter not a good to be pursued in everybody's interest, instead of racing at an ever-increasing pace towards ways of life whose dubious ethos is now imposed onto universities? Shouldn't we perhaps educate society to think more and more effectively? Time and space are two important coordinates of our lives - and they must be protected at all costs against those forces that try to thwart them for ends that are not always noble.
Roberto Di Napoli on the University World News Facebook page
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