The higher education revolution is already underway

Some revolutions take place with all the stealth and subtlety of 4and July fireworks. But others unfold in silence, and when they are over, their triumph is so invisible and so complete that it is as if they had never happened.

In retrospect, these revolutions seem inevitable, inexorable and irreversible.

This last type of revolution is transforming higher education. We are all aware of certain aspects of this revolution, but its scope and implications rarely get the attention it deserves.

The revolution that is currently transforming higher education is of course not the first. During the 20and century, we have seen several:

  • The transition from mass elite to near-universal higher education.
  • The fast growth in professional, technical, career-oriented and pre-professional programs at undergraduate level (alongside greatly expanded master’s, doctoral and professional programs at post-baccalaureate level), displacing the traditional liberal arts core – visible in the rise of programs in architecture, business, communication , engineering, hotel and restaurant management, journalism, nursing, social work and technology.
  • the rise of the instrumental university – the shift of the mission of higher education from the strictly educational domain towards human capital and regional economic development, applied research, research on public policies and advocacy to solve social problems.

What makes today’s revolution fundamentally different from its predecessors is that it is taking place in multiple dimensions – demographic, organizational, curricular, pedagogical, personnel, etc. – and that it contributes to a thorough stratification of institutional missions, student preparation, resources and outcomes. .

That a revolution is happening is no secret. Just think of the different ways in which authors discuss the contemporary university:

  • The rise of the neo-liberal university: The tendency of universities to act like private sector corporations, which is evident in changing patterns of institutional governance, the adoption of enrollment management and other practices designed to maximize revenue generation, the relentless pursuit of ancillary revenues, the growing focus on return on investment and the perception of students as customers.
  • The rapid growth of fully online universities, typically characterized by a narrow, job-aligned curriculum, standardized courses, often asynchronous, and “self-paced and self-directed” courses that require a high degree of autonomy, and the replacement of traditional faculty members with less staffing models. expensive.
  • the growing role of vendors and third-party vendors in the performance of core institutional functions.

Then there are those changes in student body, faculty, institutional staff, and costs that we all recognize:

  • the decline of the “traditional” student, between the ages of 18 and 22, who attends university full time and who has very limited work and family responsibilities.
  • the desperate looking for new student markets, including international students (institutions that accept 90% or more of international student applicants include Loyola University Chicago, University of Texas at Arlington, University of Kansas, University of Toledo, Kent State and Colorado State; among those whose student body consists of at least 20% international students are Mount Holyoke, St. John’s Santa Fe and Annapolis, Bryn Mawr and Earlham).
  • the growing division of faculty in terms of access to tenure, teaching and service responsibilities, and full-time and part-time status.
  • The fast growth of non-teaching professional staff, in charge of counseling, guidance services, psychological support, academic support and student life.
  • The shifting of higher education costs to families and the federal government and the strong Increase in student debt burden.

Taken together, these developments should be understood as part of a much broader revolution that is creating a highly stratified and highly differentiated higher education ecosystem, with institutions targeting distinct student demographics.

What is the nature of this revolutionary transformation?

  • While previous revolutions sought to democratize access to an old collegiate model, the current revolution is producing a much wider range of educational models that target distinct demographic groups.
  • The growing disparity in the education that institutions provide is widening in terms of access to faculty, majors, counseling and support services.
  • In a growing number of institutions, especially research institutions 1, the undergraduate teaching function of the university is increasingly devolved to other functions.
  • Students, especially at less selective institutions, vote with their feet and are concentrated in several broad areas – business, education, and health – with a very small proportion in the humanities or social sciences (within Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, only 4% of students majoring in social sciences).
  • The relationship between students and their institutions is becoming increasingly transactional, with increasing numbers of students swirling between multiple colleges and universities.
  • The government is taking a more active (some would say, more intrusive) role in monitoring and enforcing accountability and demanding more information, especially on costs, debt and graduation outcomes and employment.
  • High schools, more and more, offer programs and electives that (in theory) are equivalent to introductory college courses, while third parties (including museums and large technology companies) offer certificates, certifications and, in some cases, study programs either separately or in collaboration with existing institutions.

It is too easy to complain about the changes taking place:

  • Overemphasis on skills and training over intellectual curiosity and cultural exposure.
  • The invocation of the language of management, efficiency, results, productivity and return on investment instead of the academic language of learning, cognitive development and personal growth.
  • Decreased levels of student readiness and decreased amounts of reading and writing assigned to students.

But such complaints have no more impact than King Canute’s order that the tide go out. Perhaps, like you, I enjoy reading books decrying the “managerial”, “neoliberal” or “instrumental” university. But what is missing is a way forward.

So what should be done then?

1. Academics need to make a stronger case for equity.
Whatever the impact of the revolution on “us” (the faculty), its consequences are far greater for students from low-income backgrounds who deserve access to the type of education that best suits their interests and aspirations. Tuition and living expenses shouldn’t be a barrier.

2. Faculty must understand that their personal interests and the learning needs of their students are not identical.|Many, perhaps most, professors prefer to teach squarely (I would say “narrowly”) in their areas of disciplinary and research specialization. But many undergraduates would benefit much more from an education that was broader, more skills-based, more experiential, more interdisciplinary, more project-oriented, and yes, more relevant and responsive.

3. Accountability is not a four-letter word.
Regardless of the rising economic and opportunity costs of higher education, the academy owes its consumers an accurate and transparent account of an institution’s mission, the results of its programs, and the steps institutions are taking to improve those results. It must also conduct regular reviews of teaching, research, and faculty services so as not to undermine tenure protections, but to encourage improvement and ensure that faculty members contribute equitably. to the operation and mission of the university. This seems to me to be the least we can do given the very significant public investment in the business of colleges and universities.

4. Faculty members in the humanities, in particular, need to adapt better to the changing interests of students.
Why can’t we better align our courses with students’ career interests, in business, engineering, healthcare, and technology? This certainly does not mean that every history course should focus on business history, environmental history, legal history, medical and public health history, or the history of technology – or on subjects that strongly interest students, including climate change or history. of race or sexuality. But I believe that those of us who have the great privilege of conducting research in the humanities should focus less on cloning and more on developing the skills, knowledge and literacy that students who do not go on to university will benefit from. later in life.

5. Free up access to higher education and make it more widely accessible to non-students.
Shortly after I left Columbia, several Core Curriculum preceptors established the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. Inspired, in part, by the Open University, the History Workshop and the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Britain, the institute remains dedicated to community education, often offered in neighborhood bars.

Now ten, he seeks to integrate rigorous but accessible scientific study into adult life, with lectures (or panel discussions) on everything from Proust and Dr. Seuss to musical romanticism and genre, culture and geopolitics in Khrushchev’s Soviet Union.

The Institute for Retired Professionals in New York is somewhat similar. Founded in 1962 by a group of New York City teachers looking for an opportunity to learn from each other, it is a cooperative learning program offering peer-taught classes and study groups on topics ranging from Bauhaus to cabaret music, manhood and adultery in literature. .

Everyone as old as me no doubt remembers hearing stories of cigar workers taking part in lessons on Kant or Marx even as they rolled tobacco leaves. The most radical of all revolutions would be to ensure that access to higher education is not limited to the academy. Not through MOOCs or MasterClasses or public television documentaries, with their lack of interpersonal interaction, but through other means.

Higher education is too valuable to be monopolized by young people – and post-baccalaureate education should not be limited to retraining and improving skills. I believe that learning should be lifelong. But that doesn’t mean it should just be technical, practical and professional.

Steven Mintz is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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