One of the advantages of having friends who are now big grand pooh bahs in the academic world is that one gets a fascinating insight into what the future of our society will be. After all, these professors are putting in place policies and procedures that will impact learning, teaching, research and the development of universities now and deep into the future.
This summer, I was having a conversation with two of my friends who are both senior professors in the United Kingdom, and both in responsible management positions with a huge publication record. The conversation drifted to how universities will be reacting to structural changes such as the internet, the virtual reality world, globalisation of education, reduction in public education subsidy, globalisation per se, the business cycle, change of the student persona from dumb thankful student to demanding educational service recipient customer, and so on and so forth.
It was a fascinating conversation and I learnt a heck of a lot about how universities operate. Given the financial pressures, universities are now moving to get as many students as they can from outside of the EU. Why? That is because they are the students who pay the full whack, sometimes an eye watering 10-20 times the amount paid by local or European students. But then when somebody is forced to mortgage their house, or take a very expensive student loan, then when they come to these Universities, they naturally demand a quality education.
Faced with a university and staff which never had to justify their quality (well, not that much anyway), it is a shocking change in philosophy and operating environments. And from what I am hearing, it is not something that is being accepted easily. Both my friends were talking about how they are finding it difficult to recruit staff, or to motivate them or to keep their students interested with a good pipeline going.
I was obviously coming at this from a different perspective (see here for my previous twittering on universities). I think that the university of today will be very different from the university in say one decade time. For example, the firm where I work in is planning to set up its own business school. The firm where I worked previously had a full fledged campus and its own business schools. Large firms are starting - or already have - their own educational institutions.
But more importantly, in the dim and distant past, I got qualified as a Prince 2 practitioner. It involved me sitting in a class room and then giving examinations, two of them, over an entire week. Now I am rolling this same qualification out to my function, and we will end up with more than 100 people working on this by end of the next year. Guess what the major difference is? 70% of the previous time would now be done electronically. In other words, e-learning will replace 70% of the prior classroom teaching. And then somebody will come in and run an examination which will also be electronically administered. So what happened to the teacher?
Oh!, did I tell you that my function is worldwide, which will be deployed out to anybody who wishes to be qualified as such? Something akin to a global university? Why not? See this story as an example. For the first time, an educational certificate will be granted to people who will be trained primarily via Second Life.
Did you spot the other issue, namely that replication of knowledge delivery is now near cost less (at least to the provider, I still have to pay a few quid for every additional licence). A teacher's main rationale for existing was that knowledge transmission was a 'one to one' or at the most 'one to many', which was not replicable easily. You couldn't just read a book and be done with it, but required additional explanations and practice sessions. But now, it can be replicated and if you do want to see a face, well, you can go on Second Life to get a virtual one.
And the education on Second Life or e-learning is and can be asynchronous. You do not have to be online or active at the same time as that of the teachers, because it can be taped or replicated or delivered irrespective of whether it is night or day.
You might then say that one would still need a degree to get a job. Well, here's another issue, because that is not necessarily the case. If all that I am checking is your ability to do a job, I dont need to see your university degree. For example, if you want to trade in the financial markets and offer investment advice, all you have to prove is that you know the laws, language and know the professional standards (which is what Prince 2 type of courses do). Yes, I know I am talking about a unique type of role, but consider most of the knowledge based industries which require professional non-technical training. This is not relating to stuff like engineering, medicine or architecture.
But what if you wanted to hire a salesman for napkins? How about wanting to hire a software coder? No? How about a graphic artist? What about a weather forecaster on TV? What about a customer service representative? What is the link between t his job, a degree for it, a way of learning, or even a particular university? How will an electronic degree change this job or its earning potential? Points to ponder, eh?