Academia must adapt if it is to flourish in changing world
Another academic year is around the corner and a new generation will soon be welcomed through the gates of higher education. The constant growth in the number of university students reflects the premium society puts on an academic education. Joining the select ranks of university students has for generations been a mixture of fulfilling intellectual curiosity, coming of age, and a tool for social mobility, enhancing the chances of climbing the socioeconomic ladder.
Not that long ago, education in general, let alone the academy, was a privilege bestowed on the very few. Less than 200 years ago, levels of literacy worldwide were confined to a very small and fortunate segment of society. But, since then, the rapid and widespread flourishing of education has been the most significant revolution in human history. It has reversed the fortunes of many millions in terms of their standard of living and ability to secure their human rights and their social status; it has empowered the disadvantaged in society and has become one of the most important engines in reducing socioeconomic gaps and gender inequality.
Equally dramatic is the growth in the level of university enrolment and tertiary education more generally since the 1970s, which has doubled in some parts of the world, while others have seen a tenfold increase in less than 50 years.
Yet, despite this desire and thirst for education well into adulthood, academia is currently in a crisis about its future. It is in a state of flux: In terms of its present and future role in society; in terms of coping with the rising costs of teaching and research while public funding is constantly declining; and in terms of how can it maintain and improve best practices in catering for a growing number of students from diverse backgrounds.
Up until the global financial crisis of 2008, the job markets were expanding at a rate that managed to absorb increasing numbers of graduates and create well-paid jobs. It was a win-win situation for young graduates, societies and universities. In the years since then, public money to support higher education has dwindled, tuition fees have continued to increase, and graduates find themselves entrapped in debt from their education years, while facing either a shortage of jobs or jobs that don’t pay enough or don’t pay at all, and are nowhere near challenging enough for a university degree-holder.
HigherEducation has reached the point where it cannot and should not just muddle along with the same old paradigms. It must change.
The instant response has been to expand postgraduate education, to provide for more expertise and differentiate between the more academically oriented. But this ends in many cases of young people spending more time in education, incurring larger debts and still competing for low-paid employment that does not reflect their education. To be sure, this is not the case with all degrees, but it is prevalent enough to cause us to question whether universities and colleges are adaptable enough to play a crucial rule in the future of young people and society well into the 21st century.
Traditional higher education has catered for the very few and perceived itself as the place where cutting edge ideas are formed and the next generation of leaders in their fields are shaped for their roles. Its role involved less time spent in class and more spent on research and developing the minds of the next generation of the very bright. It was less resource intensive, and a place for graduates in society was mostly guaranteed.
The current problem is that research is deprived of adequate resources — the quality and prestige of universities is measured more by research than the quality of teaching, while the sheer number of students and their average entry level requires more intense and innovative teaching methods and academics whose focus is scholarly, informed teaching. The current situation in most universities is an unsatisfactory mishmash of research and teaching, in which the students should be enjoying the quality of teaching that instils in them learning skills and critical thinking, and releases their entrepreneurial inner selves that will serve them for the rest of their lives and benefit their societies. If society sees that as a priority that pays long-term dividends, it must also ensure that university studies won’t end up being affordable only for the rich.
There is a real fear that the opportunity to enrol in university education will revert to being reserved for those with the economic means to do so, leaving behind many with the ability to succeed but without the means to afford it. Higher education is not a luxury, but an essential public good, which should be shared with those who are capable, talented and are willing to invest in it.
A further threat to the overall contribution of higher education to society comes from neglect of the humanities, the social sciences and the arts in favor of disciplines that lead to higher-paid jobs and hence attract more students, and also in many instances higher fees. One of the aims of the modern academy is not only to provide its graduates with knowledge and a profession, but also to turn them into good, participatory global citizens with an interdisciplinary grasp of the world and society around them. This requires the ability to develop a degree of intellectual depth and to see beyond their immediate profession and daily tasks. Herein lies the importance of preserving the liberal arts.
In a fast-changing world where knowledge is doubling rapidly, experiential learning is crucial to the development of critical thinking. Some of the answers to the combination of increasing costs and rapid change can be provided by digital learning but, tempting as this is, it’s only part of the solution. Online courses and degrees might be cheaper and enable wider reach, but can’t replace human interaction and the dynamic created by sharing the same physical space.
Higher education has reached the point where it cannot and should not just muddle along with the same old paradigms. It must change. A good start would be to distinguish, where viable, between research-oriented setups and scholarly-informed teaching institutions, depending on the courses and the students that they aim to attract. Degrees should be made more affordable; programs must be re-evaluated; and, last but by no means least, none of this will happen until the bureaucratic and administrative chains that have been put on academics have been removed.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. Twitter: @YMekelberg