To read about higher education today, one might get the impression that the whole ivy-covered edifice is on shaky ground, ready to collapse. Universities are certainly facing big challenges, but much of what’s being said seems to me wildly pessimistic. The metaphors used to describe this parlous state I find particularly amusing.
To be fair, most of the commentary I highlight below is in reference to the U.S. higher education system, but some Canadian commenters have parroted these same arguments when talking about the problems facing Canada’s system, so I think it’s fair game to cite them here. Forthwith, I present my top three hoary metaphors of the higher-ed apocalypse.
1. Higher education is a bubble waiting to pop.
Borrowing an economic metaphor, several commentators have claimed that higher education is overpriced relative to its value, and once people figure this out the education market will crash, much like the U.S. housing market did in 2008 and the dot-com craze before that. The higher-ed bubble hypothesis seems to have been first articulated early in 2011 in an article on the website Tech Crunch, quoting hedge fund manager and venture capitalist Peter Thiel. The idea was quickly picked up by the Economist, New York magazine (great photo!) and others.
The Economist’s Schumpeter blog summarizes Thiel’s argument this way:
“Tuition costs are too high, debts loads are too onerous, and there is mounting evidence that the rewards are over-rated. Add to this the fact that politicians are doing everything they can to expand the supply of higher education … much as they did everything that they could to expand the supply of ‘affordable’ housing, and it is hard to see how we can escape disaster.”
2. Higher education is like the dying newspaper industry.
Picking up on some of the themes above, Thomas Kunkel, the president of St. Norbert College in De Peer, Wisconsin, explains the parallels:
“Both the newspaper industry and higher education have largely failed to recognize the Internet as an emerging competitive threat or a useful tool to be exploited. Both have been reluctant to innovate their core products. Indeed, both have operated in a kind of self-constructed bubble, assuming they can conduct business the way they always have—by imposing lavish price increases as if it were a sovereign right, for instance, or taking a young-adult audience for granted. And both newspapers and higher education have imagined they would be around forever.”
Kevin Carrey, who interestingly didn’t support the bubble hypothesis in the Chronicle link above, does support the dying newspaper industry analogy. He writes in a 2009 post: “Both industries are in the business of creating and communicating information. Paradoxically, both are threatened by the way technology has made that easier than ever before.”
3. Higher education is heading for the “Great Disruption.”
The Great Disruption meme (complete with Upper Caps) was popularized by Michael Staton, CEO of the U.S. company Inigral. Supporting the higher-education bubble theme, he argued last September that the current business model of universities is broken. Others have used the Great Disruption metaphor in reference to how online education is going to wipe out the traditional universities as we know them, prompting the Atlantic magazine to envision a post-campus America. Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente picked up on the Great Disruption meme, opining that the current university model “has reached the end of the line in Canada, too.”
As proof that the Great Disruption is nigh, many commentators point to the success of the “Stanford education experiment,” which saw 160,000 people sign up for a free, online Introduction to Artificial Intelligence course taught by its professors Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig. Meanwhile, Harvard and MIT recently announced they’ll offer free online courses through a project called edX, while a number of other universities – including Stanford – will do the same through Coursera. Two New York Times columnists have waxed poetic about this coming shake-up in higher education: Thomas Friedman (“Come the Revolution”) and David Brooks (“The Campus Tsunami”).
This has led to some remarkable hyperbole, such as Professor Thrun prophesizing that in 50 years, there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education; or a Forbes columnist who suggests that mass online education will make 90 percent of the professoriate obsolete with the next 20 years.
Perhaps I’m mistaken, but I just don’t see this burgeoning demand for online education, at least not among the key segment of full-time undergraduate students. I side with Alex Usher of the Canadian firm Higher Education Strategy Associates, who states emphatically: “There. Is. No. Great. Disruption. Coming. In. Higher. Education. Period.” His reasoning:
“Yes, there are some very interesting educational experiments going on out there. But does any of this amount to a serious challenge to universities? Does any of it make it more likely that 18- to 24-year-olds will abandon schools to go take courses online? No, because apart from some marginal techno-freaks, everyone thinks education is a social activity, which requires a much richer set of interactions than is possible online. … The new technology does make certain types of education – essentially continuing education and certain types of professional development – less costly and more convenient. And to a certain clientele (but not 18- to 24-year-olds) this matters. But this clientele is pretty marginal at most universities, so it’s hard to see why institutions would face some kind of disruptions.”
(You may also wish to read the recent thoughts of Alan Slavin on this topic elsewhere on our site.)
Finally, this crisis talk is, of course, not really new. Peter Drucker is quoted in Forbes in 1997 as saying, “Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won’t survive. It [Internet technology] is as large a change as when we first got the printed book … the system is rapidly becoming untenable.” He still has 15 years to be proven right. Any bets?