Just as we’ve seen the forces of technology and globalization transform sectors such as media and communications or banking and finance over the last two decades, these forces may now transform higher education. The solid classical buildings of great universities may look permanent but the storms of change now threaten them.
Of course, competition between universities around the world has been intensifying for decades, and now they fight for talent and research funding. In An Avalanche, the authors argue that a new phase of competitive intensity is emerging as the concept of the traditional university itself comes under pressure and the various functions it serves are unbundled and increasingly supplied, perhaps better, by providers that are not universities at all. think-tanks conduct research, private providers offer degrees, Thiel Fellowships have more prestige than top university qualifications, and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) can take the best instructors global. Choosing among these resources and combining them as appropriate, many of those served by traditional universities may be able to better serve their objectives.
At the same time, the changes outlined by the authors are opening up access to quality higher education to the masses in previously unforeseen ways. Until recently, a select few people could get the opportunity to benefit from elite institutions. Just this year I met a 12-year-old girl from Pakistan who had been teaching herself university level physics online using course materials from Stanford. As I write this, the introductory biology course from MIT, taught by leading researcher Eric Lander, is about to be made available free around the world.
The fundamental question in An Avalanche is Coming is whether a university education is a good preparation for working life and citizenship in the 21st century or, more precisely, whether it will continue to be seen as good value, given the remorseless rise in the cost of a university education over recent decades. For students, the question is immediate and challenging given the growing anxiety around the world about youth unemployment, even among college graduates. For policymakers, all kinds of new challenges are raised: how to promote meritocracy; how to regulate a sector that used to be national and is increasingly becoming global; how to ensure universities of the right sort combine with great cities to fuel innovation and economic growth; and how to break the rigid link – at least in people’s perceptions – between cost and quality.
For university leaders, the questions are more profound still. The authors argue that the obvious strategy – steady as she goes – is doomed to fail; the one thing you don’t do in the path of an avalanche is stand still! But what should you do? Does the curriculum need complete overhaul? What are the right models of teaching and learning now that the traditional lecture seems obsolete? Which students should be targeted? What global allowances will be necessary? The authors of An Avalanche is Coming don’t answer these questions definitively but they most certainly put them on the agenda. Furthermore, Michael Barber’s argument about unbundling needs to be studied and acted on by university leaders around the world. Those involved in thinking through the prospects for university education in the 21st century will find much to interest and provoke them here.
Certainly there are challenges ahead, but surely also opportunities for those bold enough to seize them. The potential unbundling is a certainly a threat, but those who rebundle well will find they have reinvented higher education for the 21st century.
Charles W Eliot University Professor and President Emeritus,
This is an excerpt from An Avalanche is Coming: Higher Education and the Revolution Ahead. Download the full report.