Is a revolution coming in higher education?

As considered by the proverbial man in the street, universities, given their durable presence and critical societal roles, would seem to be among the most stable of institutions.
Yet in An Avalanche is Coming: Higher Education and the Revolution Ahead, Michael Barber, Katelyn Donnelly, and Saad Rizvi (henceforth BDR) sound the alarm that changes are taking place below the surface of the snow-covered mountain that is the higher education sector, which will inevitably give way to a radically different landscape. They warn that, unless schools try to understand the developments and find ways to cope and adapt, they just might be covered or swept away by the coming deluge.

Two major forces are driving the changes. On the one hand, globalization has been expanding the competition for the most talented students and for research funds, making it more and more global in reach.

The implication for Philippine universities and colleges is that they are not competing only with local institutions but increasingly with ASEAN and Asian higher education institutions (HEIs), especially with the advent of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015.

This emerging trend lays bare the backwardness of Philippine education policies that limit the number of foreign students that can be taken in by local HEIs, of labor policies that restrict not just well but better-qualified foreign academics from joining the faculty ranks of local HEIs (which could improve both teaching and research capabilities), and of fiscal policies that prevent private HEIs from directly receiving government funding for research and training.

Indeed, the scale of this development has been such that, for some universities and their host cities and countries, foreign students have become a significant source of revenue. On the other hand, the accelerating pace of technological change is eroding the competitive edge (or, what is the flip side of the same coin, the scope economies) traditionally enjoyed by HEIs in granting academic degrees and producing research outputs.

The upshot is that the structure of the higher education market is changing in the following ways (among others described by BDR): First, the more global competition for students is shifting market power to the demand side (i.e., to students). Moreover, the shift is helped along by the proliferation of nontraditional providers, such as distance-learning ventures (open universities and massive open online courses or MOOCs) and certificate programs that offer employment on completion or have better brands and networking opportunities. BDR give Y-Combinator and Techstars as examples of learning-by-doing incubator and accelerator programs with brand values comparable to those of Ivy League business schools and which come with start-up funding, close mentorship, and wide networks.

Second, given their expanding choice sets of educational experiences, students are becoming more entrepreneurial about how their educational investments are able to enhance the start-up project that is their professional career. Degrees per se are becoming less important; real learning (such as skills gained, ideas grappled with, and the experience of working with teams of talented people), affiliations with strong brands (whether school, training program, or firm), and the entire school experience (from the quality of the interactions with faculty and other students to the facilities on offer) are emerging as the dimensions of choice.

In turn, government regulations will become less important as the focus of the market increasingly turns to educational outcomes and away from credentials per se.

Third, the research landscape is undergoing reconfiguration as well. Although research power, measured as quality times volume, will remain with the best research universities, most other HEIs will need to form partnerships as the way to cope and compete. These linkages will be not just with other HEIs, but with entities that are also conducting research, such as large business corporations, private science laboratories, foundations and trusts, think tanks and consultancies, and bilateral and multilateral organizations.

How a university strategically forges its research partnerships can shape its future. For instance, securing funding commitment for research and doctoral training in a discipline or problem area can mean the creation of new academic units and laboratories or the resources to recruit star academics, which in turn can lead to a virtuous cycle of more research and better quality of teaching.

In the case of middling universities that do not produce high-quality research anyway and where teaching quality suffers as a result of the distraction posed by research activities, the serious question can be, why indulge in research at all?

Fourth, HEIs are no longer just brain trusts for their cities. Cities are discovering that universities provide forums for creative minds to interact with and learn from each other and, in effect, act as magnets for attracting human capital.

Consequently, cities are beginning to invest in creating education-and-business hubs (to replicate Silicon Valley) as a foundation for their long-term growth and prosperity. In effect, the local government of a university’s host city can become its close partner and major resource in shaping their shared future.

Fifth, because of modern technology, faculty need not reside within the environs of the university. Leading academics and practitioners can now teach everywhere, and students increasingly want to be taught by the leading expert on the topic rather than by just any professor. Moreover, learning materials are now ubiquitous and have marginal storage and transmission costs. This means that only the leading experts in any given topic or charismatic “actors” with excellent presentation skills will eventually be wanted for lecturing. As this happens, the role of professors in universities will shift from teaching to mentoring and being networking resources for students.

How then should HEIs prepare for the avalanche that is coming? BDR provide the following suggestions, among others:

First, while relevance-for-employment is becoming a more important concern, universities should stay the course on its general and core mission to pursue and disseminate knowledge for its own sake, because these enterprises have intrinsic value. Advocates of the classics, literature, and the humanities, however, need to make the case to students and the general public about the appeal and significance of their disciplines, and, to make the courses more interesting and the learning more effective, the delivery of the subjects must make creative use of the new technologies as with all other courses.

Second, universities will need to build distinctions or attributes that set them apart. Specifically, HEIs will need to put together the school experience to be offered to their target segment of students, which may include the residential experience (i.e., lodging accommodations and amenities); the quality of teaching, research and mentorship; the availability of work-study programs; and networking opportunities.

Third, universities will need to identify niches, i.e., the segments of the student market for whom the strengths of the university will be most appealing (e.g., those who intend to proceed to graduate school, those who are career-minded, or those who aspire to work in international settings, to name a few possibilities).

Fourth, as already mentioned above, universities will need to build collaborative relationships with their host cities, which in itself can be a distinction.

An Avalanche is Coming is a grand epic painting on a large canvas. Its ideas are insightful and thought-provoking. The stakeholders of the Philippine higher-education sector would do well to closely study its analysis and suggested remedies.

Dr. Michael M. Alba is the president of Far Eastern University and a senior fellow of Action for Economic Reforms. This essay in a slightly different form was first published in the August 2014 issue of Tambuli, the official publication of Far Eastern University.

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