2014 trends – Demand, online learning, entrepreneurs and cuts

Leaders at three of North America’s top universities have highlighted the need for creative solutions and adaptability across the higher education system in the light of persistent global economic uncertainty, spiralling student loan debt and crippling institutional operating costs. But they also expressed considerable optimism.

The senior administrators spoke with University World News, voicing their thoughts about trends and developments for higher education in 2014.

Weighing in were: Henry E Brady, dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley; Cheryl Regehr, vice-president and provost at the University of Toronto; and at Webster University in St Louis, Missouri, President Elizabeth J Stroble and Provost Julian Z Schuster.


It is in precisely such times as these that the need for higher education is greatest, observes Brady, remarking on the “tremendous demand for higher education by individuals and the public”.

Concurring, Stroble anticipates growth in the sector: “As mainstream society increasingly acknowledges that those with college degrees are better equipped to weather the economic downturns than those without, the demand for higher education will grow.”

The challenge is responding to the changing demographics of those studying at higher education institutions across North America.

Wage stagnation caused by the Great Recession has driven fees and tuition beyond the reach of many middle-class families, says Brady, and this affects access for both domestic and international students.

New technologies

While online and alternate learning modalities have been hailed as having the potential to make higher education more accessible to more students than ever before, it is increasingly being acknowledged that they are far from being a panacea.

And yet it is clear that new technologies will continue to play an important and integral part of the post-secondary learning environment in 2014.

As Brady notes, the most highly motivated students will always exploit the best these technologies have to offer.

But it is essential that universities take them and adapt them to “create learning environments where everyone is excited about learning, where 18-year-olds in a college class are brought together with a sense of common purpose, competition [and] community”.

Although massive open online courses – MOOCs – have gained considerable currency over the past few years, many higher education pundits recognise that a hybrid offering of online and face-to-face pedagogy is usually more effective, and indeed desirable, on campus.

In spite of enjoying great success with its various MOOC offerings, the University of Toronto recognises that most students want to personalise their learning experience. Regehr observes: “Today’s students are tech savvy and they expect a different kind of interaction with technology.”

In fact, Canada’s largest university is finding that the inverted classroom (or blended learning) model allows students to listen to lecture materials at their own pace and repeatedly if necessary.

“It is very exciting,” adds Regehr. “It’s expanded the way we think about on-campus education. We can no longer look at it as a dichotomy between online and campus-based education.

“University education has to be blended nowadays largely because of the expectations and learning approaches of the current generation of students.”

From the American Midwest, Schuster agrees: “What we’re finding is that students prefer the hybrid approach: a combination of both online and traditional modalities. [Students] like the convenience of online with the relationship they can have with professors and a bricks-and-mortar university.”

While Schuster’s colleague and Webster University President Stroble agrees – “the hybrid approach tends to produce a more successful result because students feel more attached to an individual or community” – she adds:

“The jury’s still out on as to what modality best serves the needs of those without access to higher education. Let’s just wait and see.”

They all concur, however, that what remains problematic is guaranteeing that both traditional and online modalities deliver quality learning opportunities – all while ensuring programme completion.

Referencing his article recently published by Columbia University Press, Brady explains: "'Completion rates’ really become an issue of ‘completion pathways’.

“That is, we must understand how students make it through college when they face financial challenges, family crises, and other problems that make it hard to finish in the standard four-year period.

“One thing we know for sure, lower tuition and more financial aid help students finish in a timely way.”

Entrepreneurial students

It is in this context that some universities are beginning to respond proactively to student-led requests to have experiential learning and entrepreneurial education made more available in the higher education environment.

This bottom-up approach where students – from all disciplines – are looking for ways to create their own occupational opportunities is something institutions like the University of Toronto have embraced with new programme offerings.

Regehr observes: “Although we have always had co-op, internship and practicum opportunities, service-oriented learning opportunities are growing in importance in today’s university experience.”

She expects a trend where students are taught to transform and commercialise their innovations into viable opportunities in response to the changing global economic environment to continue into 2014.

Specifically, these opportunities are realised in the delivery of for-credit courses as well as in terms of providing access to facilities like idea incubators and entrepreneurial technical support programmes and hubs.

This also plays neatly into the global reach of universities, in terms of internationalisation of the student body and also through international partnerships for higher education institutions as a whole – as, for instance, with Webster’s recently inaugurated campus in the Ghanaian capital Accra.

Squeezing out R&D

But just as new directions to enhance the experience of and improve learning opportunities within higher education are certain to continue in 2014, there is also agreement that policy-makers are failing to acknowledge the impact that sustained cutbacks to research and development will have on the system as a whole.

Brady points specifically to a long-term policy of disinvestment by corporations and governments that seek immediate payoffs.

For this reason, it would seem that higher education’s biggest challenge is more than ever to help policy-makers appreciate the dual importance of research and development alongside the teaching mission in guaranteeing the academy’s long-term survival.