Four predictions for post-pandemic Higher Ed

 

I recently spoke at an Education Conference and was asked to comment on what is likely to happen in Higher Ed sector post-pandemic. My presentation was about four key changes. I am not sure it resonated with the audience - I very much looked the odd historian trying to talk about the future - but I sincerely believe what I mentioned. Therefore, it is wothwhile to record these observations here, before they were completely forgotten, even by me! 

My broad point was that pandemic, traumatic and game-changing as it has been, is not the only force changing higher education. Otherwise, after the infection numbers start falling and we start facing safer again, everything would have gone back to how it was earlier. However, a number of things happened in the last few years, which, taken together, would have a profound effect on how we live now. Before we attempt making a prediction about what happens to Higher Ed, it is definitely worth taking stock of what's changed.

Here are some of the big shifts we need to take into account, apart from the pandemic:

1. We are looking at a demographic contraction. This was rather unexpected - we were expecting the global population to go up and up! But a number of factors, urbanisation in some of the countries where population was growing fast, the uneven prosperity across different classes, have played a role. Suddenly, even India's population seems to be falling behind the replacement rates. Add all the extra deaths, disproportionately among the poorer people and in poorer countries, in the world, and estimated 50 million (adding to those unreported over documented 6 million) lost lives would have its effect on the population. This would have effect on number of people going to college, people moving between countries, companies putting more money in automation etc.

2. Inflation is back. Our time on gorging on Chinese and Indian savings is over. With broken global supply chain, cheap goods wouldn't come cheap anymore. This is a more fundamental change than it appears on surface. The consensus about cheap money is what the Western societies are built on. This is, in many ways, the fundamental strategic weakness of the West to confront the Russian aggression in Ukraine (as an example), or for that matter, Chinese geopolitical push. With inflation, the policy-makers would face the question whether to turn the blind eye and let inflation shift the balance away from financiers to the producers, or to intervene with raising interest rates, which will have a devastating effect on middle class mindset worldwide and break the neo-liberal consensus.

3. Instead of one vision of the world - the America-led flat-world liberalised world - there are two competing visions now. It was interesting to hear a private equity executive make the case for 'mercantilism' at the same conference. The de-coupling of Chinese technology and capital from the American one, if successful, would end the singular idea of international education sector. Each country will have to figure out what higher education ought to look like, for them. A cursory glance at India's national education policy would show this tension: While it talks about economic competitiveness and the necessity to bring in international expertise, it is no clarion call for globalisation! Missing this perspective - which is what many UK universities seem to be doing, jumping into partnership fray (mostly to do franchising, which remains banned) - would be missing the point.

The pandemic, in my mind, has accelarated some of these changes. We are, therefore, looking at a very different 20 to 30 years. I am not sure the strategic plans of higher education institutions factor any of these shifts in. For British universities, it is as it was before: Selling off family silverware to fund increasingly untenable global rankings, at the time when there are too many universities are chasing too many rankings for too few students! Bizzarely, we are still having the same conversations we could have ten, or five, years ago - recruitment agents, commission structures, photoshopped campus photos, international (but suitably flavourless) student canteen menu! Oh yes, India is the new China but that's just as far as the international education revolution goes. It is time, I reckon, to inject some strategy in the strategic plans.

I propose that we should start by acknowledging that the pandemic has been a hothouse of experiments. We had to carry on business-as-usual within a fundamentally altered context. We have now tested many assumptions and explored the possibilities and the limitations of many different scenarios. The unusual power of cheap money, funnelled into a blessing of unicorns, spewed out biased publicity and created a bandwagon of online wanabees. Prediction-making is, therefore, a perilous enterprise - and we can only make sense of what's happening is if we add a bit of historical thinking. Therefore, I shall try to look forward by looking back, below.

Therefore:

First, I don't think higher education will become online. A lot of bad and poorly thought-out online education happened in the pandemic. Despite the hype, which is primarily due to the enormous capital invested in online education companies and not because this was a better way of learning, the experience has been very poor. As expected, this forced experiment has proved what we already knew: That online education has a 'Matthew effect'* problem, and while it makes better students better, it makes poorer students poorer. But, I don't think we are going to put the digital genie back in the bottle and go back to the old debates of online-vs-in-person education. Now we know, both the possibilities and the limitations. Hence, I think every institution, from this point on, will be digital, but the online ones will gradually shrink.

Second, like after the influenza pandemic a hundred years ago, people will now look for pleasure and meaning. Starting new college dating services may spawn new facebooks, perhaps in a new metaverse garb. But it's the search for meaning which may have most profound effect on Higher Ed. At the time when neo-liberal policy making is defunding the humanities, their finest hour may have come. I would love to think there is a great synergy between greater technology capacity for online learning and greater demand for humanities education, but I am also painfully aware that a good humanities education is more than just delivering content. It may be that this is an even better candidate for metaverse-led transformation, but there is a deep disconnect between those who are funding these tech ventures and the idea that humanities education should be for everyone. I wouldn't hold my breath for a online humanities education unicorn: The ones which exist, such as Wondrium, is actually trying to go the other way, introducing more and more science and tech content. But this is where most innovation could be, particularly as the cultural education market is wrenched open by the mandate of the National Education Policy!

Third, rather obviously, I think the campus experience will emerge as a premium. While students would want to get back to campuses and pay a lot more money (as compared to online) to do so, they would demand more. They would view the campus time as premium, not to be trifled away queuing up for basic support in front of one counter or another. Rather, every minute would count and the institutions, like companies, have to start thinking about integrated multi-channel experience. Digital will make online and in-person converge and higher education institutions have to go beyond compliance, which they call 'quality assurance', into crafting meaningful experiences. This is different from pampering the students, which was already underway before the pandemic: universities rediscovered the students as their 'customers' and were competing with each other to make learning easy and higher grades dime-a-dozen! Those 'diploma-mill' activities will now fully transfer online and the universities have to create experiences which make coming to the campus worthwhile. This may mean more challenging and transformational learning experiences, not softer ones. Pedagogy (or andragogy, if you will) would become central again and teachers will become learning designers; communities will be at the heart of this and universities would look like networks. Only when a campus produces a premium learning experience, it will make sense.

And, finally, education will go back to where it was: Everywhere! The real question that we should be asking is not whether too many people are going to the universities, but if the universities are trying to do too many things. In the quest of growth - which is about cornering an ever greater share of public money - the universities have started doing everything. In the process, they have killed off, at least temporarily, all other forms of public education: Saturday clubs, trade union education, evening lectures and all that! Everything was subsumed in degrees and diplomas, in the hands of a professional professoriate! But as we arrive at a point comparable to the nineteenth century industrial revolution, when technologies are changing fast and knowledge is being produced, refined, used and curated everywhere (particularly on the Internet), we need new and diverse institutional formats and new ways of recognition. The state-backed monopoly of the universities are already under threat, and alternative forms of education are emerging. Bootcamps, MOOCs and platforms for educators distributing classes privately already existed before the pandemic, but it has now exploded in size and scope. And, more, new formats, community-based, are constantly emerging. I put a lot of hope on microcredentials as they grow up and stop being short courses with a fancy name: the pedagogical revolution may transform them into something which finally makes sense and makes a difference to the learners.

None of this is new, of course. But technology historians already know that we move forward through the shocks of the old: Maturing technologies and ideas that find takers, often through new, different usage. Pandemic has shown that the history has not ended and it will keep coming back time to time. The future - for all the excited talk - may indeed look like the past, just with a bit more wisdom on our part.

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* Matthew 25:29: "For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away."

 Painting by Philip Guston

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