The Next Revolution has Begun

The future of tertiary education will be significantly improved when the impermeable boundary between academic and vocational education that exists almost everywhere becomes more permeable and allows individuals to move back and forth across it.

August 9, 2016

It is beyond any doubt that modern economies need an educated work force, but the assumption that a university degree continues to be the only way to achieve that goal needs to be reconsidered.  I read somewhere recently (wish I could remember where in order to cite it) that the structure of higher education is an artifact of the past.  Undoubtedly true.  This is creating a breach with the needs of the labor market and the society as a whole that is continuing to grow. 

Philip Altbach and Laura Rumbley, I published, “Trends in Global Higher Education:  Tracking an Academic Revolution” in 2010 where we referred to changes that were dramatically changing the higher education landscape at the end of the last century and beginning of the current one.  Among those changes were the massification of enrollments and the commercialization and internationalization of higher education. There have been numerous citations to “the academic revolution” since.  I suggest that we are currently on the verge of yet another revolution, one that is barely on the radar of ministries of education or university leadership but that will dramatically change the higher education landscape yet again, this time in the area of non-college learning.

Somewhere along the line a traditional university degree became the primary measure of a person’s qualifications for employment; that has to change.  In most of the world, students enter tertiary programs that require 2-7 years to complete.  The programs of study tend to be inflexible; limited in disciplinary scope; and focused on transmitting knowledge and skills that belong to the past, (with luck) to the present, but rarely to the future.  There are multiple problems with the model.  In some cases the program of study has become irrelevant to all but the instructors teaching it; in other cases the programs provide content without practical application; in still others, the content can’t be updated quickly enough to address changes of technology and professional practice; additionally, programs often fail to develop the “soft skills” that the labor market requires; and finally, if a student leaves before completing a program, they leave with nothing or (worse) only with debt. 

Of course it is easy to cast all the blame at universities for being elitist and unresponsive to the criticisms of the societies they serve.  But it isn’t only the universities that are to blame—others are complicit.  In many countries credentials are not “official” without government recognition and the validation process is usually in the hands of individuals with traditional and conservative notions of tertiary education.  And although employers complain about the skills that university graduates lack, they still tend to hire only those who have earned traditional credentials in very specific fields of study.  Creating new, flexible, multi-disciplinary university degree programs with less emphasis on specific professional content whose value will be recognized is both a political and social challenge.

Acknowledging that individuals pursue postsecondary education for ever more diverse purposes and needs means that the postsecondary education will need even more diversity in the future than has been offered until now.  Many of the complex expectations being heaped on universities can be dealt with elsewhere; universities cannot, and should not, be all things to all parties. 

A great deal of innovative program development is taking place “off campus”.  Competency-based assessment, stackable credentials, badges, boot camps, among other new opportunities provide important alternatives to 2-7 years sitting in a classroom in pursuit of a single credential.  Third-party credentialing is an inevitable part of the future of higher education.  For individuals who need more immediate qualifications for employment, for employers who need people with very specific skills, for people who need the flexibility to alternate employment and education at different points in their life, and for more expedient and affordable paths to credentials, there have to be alternatives.

These alternative postsecondary paths to acquiring and documenting qualifications have special promise for developing countries that have not yet achieved mass enrollment in tertiary education and where public and private resources cannot keep pace with demand for university enrollment.  Furthermore, if these programs correctly target the short and mid-term needs of growing economies they may prove a win-win by addressing current labor market demands, placing individuals more quickly into skilled employment, and offering efficient mechanisms for retraining as labor market needs shift.  But it is critical that these new opportunities don't put people on a path that becomes a dead end.

This “non-college” sector is growing quickly and will continue to grow, creating new spaces and options for learning.   New technologies and their application will accelerate this growth; they are already adding new concepts and vocabulary to our lexicon, such as a "cloud-based asset".   This is a budding revolution in the making.  This sector is clearly addressing a need that few universities are tackling. There are two major challenges ahead for all countries.  First, how much regulation is needed to assure that these new providers deliver programs that meet the quality and content needs of their students and the labor market, deliver programs at a fair cost, and maintain transparent and ethical practices.  Second, how to integrate these new programs and credentials with traditional higher education in order to recognize when knowledge acquired outside the classroom is valid and comparable.  The future of tertiary education will be significantly improved when the impermeable boundary between academic and vocational education that exists almost everywhere becomes more permeable and allows individuals to move back and forth across it.



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