Home > My Thoughts > Is our higher education system on the brink of extinction?

Is our higher education system on the brink of extinction?


Well, maybe that may be a bit extreme for the here and now, but I don’t think it’s that far fetched – read on…

A response to Mike Bogle’s blog post “Expanding the role of the university”

I read an interesting post from Mike Bogle today about demand for university study outstripping available places. I really recommend that you take a look and read the full post to get the context of what I am saying here. Mike opens with…

According to an article in the Australian this morning, student demand is exceeding available spots in universities, with many universities in Queensland “struggling to keep pace with strong student demand, with the offer rate falling to 79 per cent, down from 83 per cent last year.

It got me thinking about an initiative we ran for a few years to try to engage members of the public in university level study online for a fraction of the cost. It ended up being a failure, and Mike’s post got me to thinking why. He went on to say…

This situation need not be a binary question of acceptance versus rejection.  Universities really need to be making opportunities available for informal study by individuals who either fail to gain formal acceptance to institution, or choose not to apply in the first place.

I agree with what Mike said in his post on the surface, but the interesting thing is that for a few years, COFA Online offered our university online courses to members of the public in a non-accredited format and for a relatively cheap rate via the ‘COFA Online Enrich’ program. The idea was to offer the public the chance to engage with others in intellectual exploration of art and design courses at university level – much like what Mike advocated in his post. Those that enrolled interacted online with full fee paying, accredited students and joined in the projects, discussion and collaborations, received detailed feedback to their work, but not a grade.

We found that there was a very low demand for this option of study, so after trying many different advertising avenues, and giving it the benefit of the doubt for 3 years or so, we canceled the program. Now this sounds like a poor reflection on the courses themselves, but they constantly receive a high standard of feedback and approval from our university’s students in formal evaluations, and those Enrich students who participated always rated them very highly – leaving glowing reports about their experience throughout the message boards in the courses themselves.

Yet despite this a relatively poor number of people engaged with the program.

This brings me back to Mike’s post – and while I really agree with the principles he is putting forward, I feel that there may be some other factors that should be considered here…

Saying it is is the fault of the institutions for not offering such options to the broader population out there is one thing, but have we fully considered the other side of the coin? Does the general population really want this type of learning from a university, or do they come to a university over the countless other education providers out there because they want that degree?

My experience with the Enrich program hints to me that there may be something to consider here…

I feel in the case of our Enrich program, the reason for it not taking off despite a lot of effort could have been that the types of courses we were offering may not have been to the taste of the public in general, maybe they were looking for more ‘community college’ kind of courses, but to me I think this raises an important point about the motivation of people to undertake the kind of educational opportunities as Mike has outlined in his post.

In other words, are people willing to engage in study at university if they don’t get credit towards a degree? Of course there are university systems in place to allow students to study a course, and gain credit towards a future degree at that institution, even if they are not enrolled in a degree program. But this is expensive, and in the end, you still have to qualify for admission to that university if you ever want to ‘claim’ the credits you have earned. Perhaps a vicious cycle for those who failed to meet the admission requirements in the first place?

Perhaps those that want to study for the joy of it find cheaper alternatives out there that makes the university option too expensive and complicated? After all if you are studying for the love of learning, is the university style of study and engagement with tertiary students worth the cost compared to other online or night classes at the local community college, if there are no higher qualifications to be had? For some yes, for the majority, perhaps no…

I agree with Mike that institutions are losing the opportunity to create a greater level of community engagement, and really need to rethink the archaic administrative procedures they have in place. Otherwise why wouldn’t people just visit iTunes U and join discussion forums to learn for free?

University education does have a lot to offer that the above options do not, but I feel it is a question of perceived value. And because of this universities are losing the opportunity to contribute to the larger society in a meaningful way, and in a way that will help break down those ivy covered walls many institutions still reside behind.

Furthermore, unless universities rethink their current stance, people will continue to be drawn to other learning alternatives. Our institutions are in danger of becoming more and more irrelevant to the way that contemporary society works, learns and plays. I am researching this very phenomenon (via the concepts of social reproduction – see Warschauer 2003 and mediation – read some Vygotsky) as part of my PhD thesis, and I find it incredibly relevant to, and unnervingly apparent in, the way many tertiary institutions are operating today.

I feel we (tertiary educators) are on the razor’s edge between making real change to our attitudes and teaching practices to ‘bring them up to speed’ with what is happening around us, and once again playing a central role in the shaping our future cultures – or keeping our blinkers on, and as a result falling further behind (and becoming an endangered species – the last turkey in the shop) as society evolves in the way it communicates, learns and works.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one – its a biggy, and perhaps I went off on a bit of a doom and gloom tangent here, but I hope you find it interesting none-the-less. Do you feel I am talking a load of crud, or if not, how would you think we should begin to address the issue?

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  1. January 30, 2010 at 1:17 am

    Simon,
    The difference of perspecitive is one that I hadn’t considered. For me, it is frustrating that there is such a focus on the degree that someone holds and less focus on the actual learning that has been done. I really enjoy the free iTunes U courses, online professional development, and learning that happens every day as I collaborate with other educators on Twitter, through blogs, and conferences. And yet, the teacher that goes through a university degree program advances in the school system even though that learning has a definite end. Generally the courses offered aren’t the most up to date. For example, there is a teacher here going through a masters program in educational technology. She shares with me what she is learning and the tools they are teaching her. They are at least 5 years old and no longer used. But, at the end she will have that degree. It seems to me that there needs to be a shift in focus about what is valued. Do we value the piece of paper that comes at the end of learning, or do we value continued learning? I would rather put my time into learning for the sake of learning, for the sake of what my students gain, than take courses at a university that are out dated.

  2. February 1, 2010 at 6:06 pm

    Believe me, I COMPLETELY AGREE WITH YOU Kelly!

    I too have found that many accredited university courses can be way out of touch with what is happening in the ‘real world’, and I have seen people with a fresh degree in their hands still not know the first thing about a discipline they are trying to get work in.

    I too am saddened by the fact that what is learned can be less important than the certification. I guess what I was trying to highlight in the blog post, was that while learning is what is really important, the reality of the job market, and the way learning is currently regarded out there makes that ‘piece of paper’ the primary focus for many who are studying.

    From the employers perspective, I can understand why a degree is so important.

    Employers have to trust the degree – or the certification that someone obtains through higher level study, they don’t have the time and in many cases the ability to study syllabi and evaluate the relevance or quality of what someone has learned – and how can they test various applicants effectively and fairly in an interview situation?

    Therefore the degree becomes relevant and important in the education process, even when at times a person holding the degree may not actually be more educated or better for a job than someone who has learned elsewhere. It is a way to have a kind of equivalence in education, as the accreditation indicates that the level of education is (we hope) on par with another person with a degree from somewhere else. If it were judged on teachers and content alone it would incredibly difficult to be able to have a comparable baseline, even though in reality the knowledge someone has gained from outside the higher education system may be more relevant that the university educated applicant.

    I’d love to be able to find a way to begin to open this system up a little more, and perhaps these conversations are a great pace to start!

  1. January 17, 2010 at 9:42 am
  2. January 18, 2010 at 4:58 pm

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