The Increasing Irrelevancy of the “University”

. 4 min read

As university tuition costs rise, the institutions themselves creep dangerously towards obsolescence. In the face of esteemed establishments like MIT opening their gates to the worldwide web, the pressure is on for universities to re-establish themselves as bastions of higher education. Online lecture courses, better yet, free online lecture courses, might have prospective students stroking their chins wondering, “Why pay when I could just get it for free?”.

It has long been known that lectures are ineffective. For the students that are motivated, lecturers are redundant. Likewise, for the students that are not motivated, lectures are hard to follow and unengaging. On the internet, there are resources with cohesive structure, simple navigation, and supportive communities that independently remedy these problems. Simultaneously, perceptions of university are changing. With tertiary education attendence at 49% for 17-30 year olds, the need to further distinguish oneself is more pressing than ever. All this combined with increasing tuition costs and unreliable goverment policies on student-finance have created an environment in which people are encouraged to look elsewhere.

There is an association with alternative sources of education that can leave a sour taste. Some may imagine problems such as a supposed lack of direction, un-recognised accreditation, or out dated information when approaching the topic. Where some see problems, I see growing pains in an emerging market. I believe the negative connotations we now have will fade, especially as the demand shifts from expensive and less-relevant traditional education to options such as the Open University. After all, I’m sure employers could appreciate the self-discipline and industry of obtaining one’s own education, not to mention the skills needed to balance learning with work experience. Universities are steeped in a history of being sources of quality education; there’s no better place to be than surrounded by experts, receiving cutting edge education in the field you’re passionate about. Ironically then, how is it that universities are lagging so far behind in how they engage and educate their students? The growing example of success in platforms like Khan-academy, Lynda, and YouTube highlight the increasing shortcomings of traditional education: innovation using the internet. This is because the market is forced to develop constantly, unlike the stagnation seen with traditional education.

But university is more than education. It is a culture. With experiences like studying abroad, industry placements, societies, and sports clubs one can experiment and grow as a person, revealing personal potential that would have otherwise never emerged. This makes it a shame that universities are not learning from the advances being made by pioneering enterprises because those who want the best education or can’t justify the debt may miss out on these chances.

Having said all that, who knows what ingenious solutions could be thought of if the market opens up enough? A lot of the opportunities universities offer have traditionally developed over time from alumni connections or a growing respect and trust in the institution. There is no reason the same cannot be true for alternatives. For example, study abroad as we know it would be transformed entirely if one could learn remotely and Open University has some interesting solutions with class meet ups and social media. The scalability with the internet is incomprehensible. If online alternatives get more popular, one could truly be part of a global community.

There is a growing body of young people that will say 'no deal' when they see what UCAS is offering – and entrepreneurs are welcoming them with open arms. As the value of being a graduate goes down and the quality of alternatives go up, there could be a huge shift in the tertiary education market. The problem is that this doesn’t have to be so black and white: universities have a wealth of experience, resources, and respect that new alternatives lack. However, if universities don’t start to catch on and learn from the structure and engagement that the internet can give, higher education as we know it will become redundant.

Innovation, for the people

The best things in life come free, and that’s no less true for education. Humans are curious in nature and when they have the chance to learn at the pace and depth that they need, it can be life-changing. Universities should be hubs that represent the best of human thought, as of now, they're an embarrassment; what MIT has done with its OpenCourseWare sets a precedent to be followed by others. By releasing their courses online for free, MIT has opened up the opportunity for education to include people from disadvantaged backgrounds; this has cast a wide net of influence that will be felt across society. Universities should be leaping at the opportunity to join them.

The traditional role of academics as both teachers and researchers has its disadvantages: chiefly the necessity to balance one's passion for researching and teaching. This dissonance is unnecessary; with public engagement and the ability to connect with experts at an all-time high, streamlining the learning process by putting it online would give researchers more time for pushing the frontiers of physics. Alternatively, they could put more resources into engagement with students, for instance by replacing lectures with seminars or projects, providing a personalised education experience.

With technological advances one can revisit presentations, ask questions in open forums, and access online courses from multiple institutions. Giving students a vast archive to learn from leaders in all fields and find teaching styles that suit them best. Slowly, as the tertiary education paradigm changes, competition will drive ease-of-use and accessibility and we'll truly understand what it means to be a lifelong learner. In the future there will be the resources there to support this vision, for everyone.

The internet has and will have an effect on how we learn as a species. I’m of the perspective that this can only be a good thing. The internet has created a competitive market that can only result in a better product for its clients: society. And if universities want to be a part of that, it's time for change.

Graeme Russell

I created this blog as a way to reach people about topics I care about: ethics, self-improvement, and lifestyle. I hope you can find something of value here.