The Failure of the Universities to Address Their Own Disruptive Moment

Unless there is a violent event such as a revolution or a giant meteor, the disruption of a system such as a business or, in this case, post secondary education, occurs over an extended period, often happening almost unaware by the affected parties. But we reach a tipping point or plateau where one can see out at the events, often, even then, in denial.

Globally, there are transforming events in post secondary education. There is increased demand, particularly in the under resourced countries to provide advanced practice skills for two major reasons. First, the primary/secondary systems in many countries are weak and students have been promoted forward needing further learning. Second, the complex needs of society both from an economic perspective and for civic participation requires advanced skills.

The burden to meet those needs has been met by expansions of institutional facilities and a further stretching of the availability of qualified faculty in the under resourced world while there exists, selectively, a surplus of faculty in the non-STEM (science/technology/engineering/mathematics) areas in, largely North America and Europe. To further complicate the picture, analysis, focused largely in North America, but potentially global in nature, shows that the real need in the “new” economy can be defined by the ratio 1:2:7 or for one Ph.D., there is needed two at a masters level and seven with applied skills level. This runs counter to the standard litany of advanced education with the goal of a Ph.D. being the ultimate destination.

The ratio is counter by the argument that this shift is temporary, given the current economy and the idea that much of the “7” can be met by improved secondary schools or separate vocational/technical training programs. The issue that many advance degreed persons are in positions for which they are over-educated is met with the same response. What is seen here is a classic example of rationalization by denial, putting forth arguments that don’t address the real, underlying issues. In this case, the issue at hand is the preservation of jobs within the traditional monolithic Ivory Tower wherever it happens to be located.

But the arguments are not just internal to the “Tower”. Many countries tie, in part, their prestige to their “flagship” university, the only or primary post secondary institution. For Africa this can be problematic. There have been and are, ongoing, meetings to “tune” universities programs across countries much like the European “harmonizing”. This not only starts to normalize content across institutions but also begins to allow students to move across institutional and geo/political boundaries to obtain the needed competencies. Additionally, it allows institutions to selectively concentrate resources in various areas both in teaching and in research. Finally, it allows institutions to rebalance their priorities between areas of teaching and research. This, also, particularly for under resourced countries,  allows institutions to more effectively deploy limited advanced degree faculty.

Post secondary education is at a disruptive moment where the academy, in an ICT driven world, is caught with trying to maintain the “idea of a university” evolved since about 1000 and the emergent challenging models  driven by capital constraints and the rapidly increasing flow of knowledge across geo/political/cultural boundaries. The sports metaphor may be appropriate here where communities claim prestige from their “home teams” when the players and owners may only have ephemeral identities to the area. And, access to a variety of fiscal and other resources give these teams the ability to move and to selectively attract players.

It is well understood that when change happens, there is resistance. The reasons put forth are often not the real reasons for the resistance. The extensive discussions on the various collaborative aspects and the efforts at “tuning” or harmonizing are important but don’t address the fundamental issues of the role or function of the university within a geo/political frame or the issues facing faculty and staff at these institutions under an emergent model.

Keeping the 1:2:7 ratio in mind, it is clear that, particularly in Africa, there are a growing number of private universities, and even public institutions from the EU and North America that see the opportunities being vacated as the current African universities and, often countries, resist, looking at trying to compete in a globally changing model.

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