Changing times, challenging university structures

At one time a basic education was considered to be successfully completed with a certificate from a secondary school. Its importance was evidenced by the fact that, internationally, that education was financed by public funds in most countries. Still, many countries continue to lack the resources to provide this basic education to all eligible individuals.

More importantly, it is clearly evident that even for those people who go into higher education, there is an uneven spread of capabilities among graduates. This spread holds not just when comparing basic skills such as mathematics but in wider knowledge such as soft skills to which students, in their primary and secondary education, have been exposed, often indirectly and unevenly and which are important in terms of their future possibilities.

This spread of exposure to a larger fabric of knowledge has become increasingly important as primary and secondary schools shift and expand emphasis from the three Rs (reading writing and arithmetic) to what has been termed the four Cs (creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication) which are deemed important in the world outside of the formal education system, that is, the worlds of work and civic life.

Faculty in primary and secondary systems are educated to provide critical knowledge and processes for students. The transition, blending 3Rs and 4Cs, can, over time, be integrated with the curriculum. Unfortunately, such infrastructure support does not exist for post-secondary faculty, primarily educated as subject matter experts.

Lack of soft skills

In the past, globally, only a few percent of those who graduated from secondary institutions pursued education in post-secondary institutions. Many of those came with skills now parsed as the 4Cs. Today, the increasing requirements for post-secondary certification have created a demand that traditional universities are unable to effectively address.

The spread of quality of students with secondary credentials has widened and faculty, defined by disciplinary knowledge, are faced with numerous problems ranging from increasing inter- or trans-disciplinary demands for research and lack of institutional support on effective methods for meeting the range of student expectations.

These range from costs from matriculation to graduation to the ability to enter into employment at the same level that those, during more selective times, enjoyed.

This creates a singular understanding that the nature of education has changed from a segmented, primary/secondary terminal degree and a differentiated post-secondary experience to a continuum of lifelong learning.

The implications can be clearly seen, for example, as Africa pushes for an expansion of post-secondary education institutions and programmes across the continent:
  • • For most countries the primary and secondary systems are unable to provide a substantive, world class, traditional, 3Rs programme for citizens much less one that can implement the added skills identified under the 4Cs rubric. This creates a cadre of graduates less prepared to advance along the schools continuum and less ready to meet the needs for employment.

  • • Currently it is recognised that, with few exceptions, the extant universities are weak across all dimensions from physical infrastructure to faculty in the traditional disciplines and even less capable in the expanded demands of meeting the current and future needs of increasingly diversely prepared students as well as supporting recognised international research standards.

  • • As the student/faculty demands in South Africa suggest, there is increasing pressure for governments to meet the ideal of both ‘open access’ and a continuation of the public sector’s provision of free school education.
Africa becomes a paradigmatic example for what is recognised as the increased need, today, of an expanded schools education equivalency, globally. This cannot be accomplished within the current institutional model of education.

There is insufficient capital to clone the extant physical infrastructure and insufficient capital and time to realise a sufficiently competent quantity of faculty and support. This transcends geo/political borders and presents a disruptive moment in the global education system. The question remains: how to address these issues starting at a conceptual level.

The first step is to realise that education cannot guarantee equal outcomes for all graduates at any exit point along a continuous lifetime educational experience.

Soft skills undermine cohort education

From experiences in the developed world, we know that many students are capable of obtaining measurable skills in secondary schools that are equivalent to competencies in post-secondary institutions, often provided under such rubrics as ‘college in the schools’ or ‘post-secondary options’.

The shift to the 4Cs often provides students with the ability to demonstrate competencies in a variety of skills, such as ICT (information and communications technologies). It also highlights that demonstration of these skills now becomes independent of where a student might be placed in the current schools continuum. The segmented ‘grade levels’ become less important for the individual student being evaluated on accomplished competencies.

This creates a profound cultural and intellectual shift. Basically, it says that education needs to provide equal access to opportunities, but that this does not necessarily guarantee equal outcomes. Thus it challenges the current academic model of providing education for students in lock step, age-defined cohorts and the expectations that all students in such cohorts should be measured by standard examinations and expectations.

There are programmes in the United States which offer individuals the ability, for a fixed fee, to take as many college ‘courses’ in a fixed period as they can complete and demonstrate proficiency. Credits are accepted by numerous academic institutions clearly recognising that different students with different objectives will advance based on such capabilities. The secondary school programmes cited above point out that this is possible early in the education continuum, before the grade 12-exit point.

In an educational environment, these opportunities are accessible globally, changing how educational programmes are structured, particularly with respect to the need for capital for facilities for standard cohort-based programmes. It also changes the entire focus on the role of and demands on educators, potentially lowering costs, increasing availability and meeting student demands.

The focus on equal access to knowledge and not necessarily equal outcomes places the pressure on the outcome side. This changes the idea from the rise of the modern university in Berlin in the mid-17th century based on a mix of researchers and students. Today, this model persists and is still focused on the university degree and post-baccalaureate certification. The shifting is a little discussed point.

Teaching vs research

Today, we accept that the post-secondary path has many options, from technical programmes to vocational schools and community colleges in the US. In the US ‘at will’ faculty or adjuncts are providing the teaching as opposed to tenure track, research driven, faculty.

Universities, by default, globally, have recognised that the education function can be successfully decoupled from the research roles in many institutions. This points to the fact that equal options for educational access do not necessarily have to result in all post-secondary faculty having the traditional role of both research and teaching.

This again changes the demand for capital to build, globally, post-secondary institutions based on the 17th century Germanic model of education/research. Basically, this deconstructs the current lifelong learning/institutional model, K to ‘grey’. None of this is predicated on the variety of e-learning options that are currently proliferating.

But the potential to be fully realised needs to take advantage of all these options, from distance learning via ICT to artificial intelligence and machine learning coupled with traditional faculty in complementary roles.

It is important to understand that this path is accessible today and does not depend on advancing artificial intelligence or machine learning to be implemented or extensive introduction of such systems. But as such systems evolve, it does become lower in cost and more accessible.

It should substantively reduce capital costs and time but does not mitigate the concerns of those vested in the current system from within and those that currently provide services and products to the system.

Dr Tom Abeles is president of Sagacity, Inc, an international foresight consultancy focused on post-secondary education policy and practice. He edits the scholarly journal, On the Horizon.