The higher education sector has come increasingly under fire from different angles. Many people within the sector are calling for change and some extreme voices aim for abandoning formal HE altogether and leaving the learning to the learners. Then there are private companies swiftly encroaching on the education sector from outside and challenging its competitiveness and service structure.
Let’s look a little bit into a futuristic scenario where these emergent trends could lead our society. Let’s assume it is 2025 and things have happened.
(1) To reduce national debt, governments have welcomed the financial relief that comes with not paying for a multi-billion €$£ industry. It allows the powers that be to avoid raising taxes, which still is unpopular in the 2020’s.
(2) The private sector has managed to take over from public education. They are now able to offer courses to students that are in line with their employment strategy. No longer are universities giving degrees that don’t fit the employment market. Of course, private industry courses are seldom free of charge, and, as we know from professional training offers, often come with an extortionate price tag. To uphold mass education, the government may decide to grant-support some students taking their courses at McDonald’s or Google’s university. They would have saved that money from releasing most of the teaching and admin personnel of the previous universities into the job market. Some of them would have been taken on by industry.
(3) Not only courses would have been taken away from universities, but also the previously precious assessment and awarding powers (which to some extent justified the university fees). Although no industry standard on educational qualifications could be negotiated between private providers, the fact that companies would educate their own future work force would perhaps give it sufficient employability also among other enterprises.
(4) The expectation that students could self-direct their studies and feed their knowledge from open educational resources to the extent that they can compete with industry educated graduates, has probably turned out an illusion, because, with teachers and researchers no longer in the business, who is going to produce give-away learning materials? All resources in use by industry are now protected.
(5) Commercial universities may offer lifestyle courses. Why should everyone just drive a Fiat Panda? If you can afford it you can do better in terms of content or services.
(6) Where did all the teachers go? And what’s left of the HE system we know? The best and most flexible teachers may find jobs in the 2025 HE industry. The remainder of viable research would perhaps congregate in a few Academies of Science, libraries would have been franchised or merged. Maybe some government funding could be found to maintain some less viable subjects, like Theatre Studies, or Gaelic. Most of the teaching and research force would earn their bread in company offices somewhere.
(7) Company institutions lure students with the freedom that knows no campus life, no canteen, no halls of residence, no student fellowship or bonds that last a lifetime. Instead, efficiency is the guiding principle.
(8) It is possible that several mergers and take-overs lead to a small number of “super-unis”, where it would not matter much whether they are run privately or publicly or as a public private partnership.
Why is such a scenario thinkable, and what role does technology play in it? Maybe technology has no importance in whether or not this could become reality. But technology has become the competitive edge with which the commercialisation battle is fought. With universities strapped for cash, the public sector may soon have to make more serious choices than what VLE they are going to buy. The most serious thing maybe that its own stakeholders turn away from the HE system as we know it – with students aiming for away-from-class education, and foresighted lecturers announcing an education revolution. This is prey for company predators and they know it.
The question is, what commercial higher education offers not to those who can afford it, or to those who are willing to sign away their privacy and identity so their education can be advertisement funded. Whatever future will bring, we need education that is socially equal in access and in content. It has to support a national culture of knowledge not simply a money making dogma.