Making brick-and-mortar universities relevant (again)

Reform of tertiary education systems in the developing world or in emerging economies should take into account the effects of globalisation, fast-paced modernisation and revolutionary technology.

Across the Southeast Asian region, globalisation has transformed education into a universal commodity, with higher learning institutions – especially those that are privately run – developing an internationally accepted yet marketable curriculum.

One obvious setback is the high cost of access to tertiary education that is often prohibitive for the majority of the populace.

On the other hand, we can say that competition from both domestic private tertiary institutions as well as international higher education institution campuses should be viewed positively as it tends to drive public tertiary institutions to play catch-up in terms of improving the quality of the education they offer.

Nevertheless, an awareness of this quality payback comes at a time of increased talk of the possible demise of traditional universities – whether public or private. Such talk is currently sweeping across the Western or so-called developed world. Some have deemed brick-and-mortar universities way too expensive or time-consuming for both young and mature students to learn basic content that can be picked up online through research or personal learning.

In developing countries – as in Thailand and the entire Southeast Asian region – escalating demand for higher education has led to the production of more graduates than the labour market can cater to. Eradicating this mismatch, particularly in the context of state-run universities, is vital.

Neighbouring Malaysia faces a similar predicament, with the World Bank reporting that employers are struggling to source talent and that one in four graduates has remained jobless six months after graduation.

This bleak employment situation is also likely to affect China, with 8.2 million college graduates expected to enter the job market in 2018 while 9.7 million unemployed people and redundant workers are also jostling for jobs, according to figures revealed by the National Development and Reform Commission.

What is more worrisome are findings from a recent study which projected that more than half of the 94 million Chinese earning college degrees between 2010 and 2020 will be working in blue-collar jobs. The underlying problem is not the rising number of students attending university, but the mismatch between the skill composition of graduates and the skills employers need.

Two extremes

While state-run universities – bowing to political pressure – are churning out graduates who are incapable of filling jobs requiring technical or quantitative skills, their private counterparts are grappling with a profit-oriented managerialist approach that may undermine graduates’ contribution to their communities.

The traditional role of universities as critics and the conscience of society has experienced a drastic shift under private universities’ new business-oriented model.

Fees are deemed to be the ultimate source of revenue keeping this business-oriented model afloat. Competition is rife in the scramble for fees. Professors are facing mounting pressure not to fail students as every single penny will be reflected in the institution’s profit and loss account.

Surviving the odds

The solution to all these issues is surely to make degrees from traditional tertiary institutions become more marketable, to make them glitter again, regardless of whether the courses are conducted in class, online (distance learning) or by hybrid means (a combination of both in-class and online courses).

Traditional universities need not embrace new learning techniques wholesale by embarking all-out on massive open online courses (MOOCs) – 78 million students are said to have taken 9,400 MOOCs from over 800 universities worldwide in 2017, according to the website Class Central.

Smaller universities need not emulate Ivy League schools by investing heavily in MOOC development. They can, however, take baby steps towards innovation while evolving so that they embrace a more diverse, more modern classroom environment vis-à-vis greater use of technology.

As an individual well-versed in both academic and corporate structures, I refuse to believe that traditional tertiary institutions are staring at their own slow demise.

A personal tenet of mine is that “a learning institution is a place where knowledge becomes incubated, not imprisoned”. I believe that traditional universities must start to methodically curate knowledge that is relevant and instil in students the skills and virtues they need through a modern and accessible incubating platform.

In other words, they must continue to re-invent themselves using today’s technologies and tailoring their teaching to the ever-changing needs of today’s workforce.

It’s not that traditional lectures are no longer appropriate for millennials, but creating a fun e-lecture environment suits the rise of the digital age. That includes state-of-the-art gadgetry that leverages the edutainment concept, extensive use of PowerPoint, 4D video and audio technology presentation.

Boring or impractical as this may sound, traditional universities are still needed to impart theoretical algorithms and abstract programming processes and encourage different ways of thinking that are rarely covered in skills-based education systems.

Their so-called online counterparts tend to focus overly on immediate employer needs and are less focused on preparing learners with the flexibility needed for a more uncertain future and even overlook the importance of social learning.

Dr Kriengsak Chareonwongsak is currently a senior fellow at Harvard University in the United States and president of the Bangkok-based Institute of Future Studies for Development.