As many institutions that are currently in crisis, universities were on a downward slope the coronavirus would only make steeper.

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With skyrocketing tuition costs, the financial ROI of a college degree was becoming less enticing for a larger number of students. Enrollments are about to near a decade of continuous decline. While still prestigious, the value of a degree, even from an Ivy League, is losing its global appeal.

By “financial” ROI, I’m deliberately distinguishing it from the social and economic value that universities add to, well, society and the economy as a whole.

Now, the pandemic has given the final push to many students —in all likelihood many millions of them— who will choose not to begin or continue college. And a big fraction of them will never see the difference within their financial lifetimes.

From a purely degree-granting standpoint, universities appear to have grown detached from the needs of degree-seeking individuals in almost every way. The glaring exception: The degree itself, which has been criticized, condemned and disdained for decades.

Both the University and the degree play a role in the system deeper than its financial ROI. Among other things, a degree is a well established economic signal. Unfortunately, everyone is free to interpret that signal as they wish. At this point it’s part of the educational lore of every country how little degrees actually mean by themselves and how widely they speak about a person’s ability to accomplish whatever it is they’re supposed to accomplish.

Defund the University?

If we were in a situation in which the free, just and transparent forces of the market were at play, we would not be having this discussion. Degrees are largely outweighing their benefits for people. And from a purely degree-related purpose, universities are obsolete.

As the world (and noteworthy, tech companies) moves towards a post-degree economy, a staunch group of people with a lot of power would stand to lose it if we collectively move beyond degrees as signals. They have a lot of resources to prevent society to realize their role should not be as prominent as it is. In that regard, they haven’t disappointed. Taking a page or two from corporate America, they’ve ramped up their marketing and PR game, potentially at the cost of civil discourse; evolved towards a winner-take-all space with hugely endowed balance sheets surrounded by widespread bankruptcy and shutdowns; marking up prices while steadily diminishing the quality of the product… I could go on. (Okay, maybe the whole playbook.)

It appears they have grown so large, powerful and ingrained in society that nothing short of a systemic shift in the way they operate will lead to reform. (Or revolution.) In the meantime, new cohorts will keep on churning, wasting their precious youth in boring, yet irrelevant lectures.

It’s fascinating to see how they are considered bastions of innovation and forward thinking. Don’t get me wrong: In lots of fields, they are. Just not in education, ironically. In a world where learning technologies are paving new roads for upskilling, engagement and quantitative understanding of students, universities are revealing themselves corrupt, slow to embrace change, and ridden with digitally illiterate apples. (It’s not their fault, the are just part of a system that encourages digital illiteracy.) As they massively fail to replicate outdated and unengaging methods of instruction on privacy and free speech-compromised Zoom, I can’t help but think they’re willing to sink us all down with them, rather than to acknowledge there is a better future for education where they are not a main feature.

The skills we need aren’t there. Where are they?

It used to be a fun exercise to think what a post-university education world would look like. Now, much like the swath of institutions we held as the bastion of our civilization, currently our best change of survival is to figure out how we can move forward without them. We’re divided, incapable, ostracized and disjointed against global crisis, and for these implicit voids we have universities to blame.

It is clear that the problems the world currently faces require the kind of intellectual skills the internet, information and communication technologies excel at. But as long as we keep reproducing degree-granting University practices, the industry will see its progress curtailed, if not compromised. It bears noting that it is not really in the University’s best interests for an optional fully online learning experience to exist. Of course, severing ties with academia, while enticing, will not be enough for the elearning industry to come up with the answers.

But we have a good idea of where to start:

  • Get rid of degrees. Focus instead on evidence-based proof of upskilling.
  • Get rid of year-long curricula. Focus instead on competencies. Pair it up with a comprehensive intelligence operation that informs students about the skills needed the most in the coming years or months.
  • Get rid of zombie lecture formats. Let students find the content they’re most comfortable with, and provide more room for autonomy and empowerment.
  • Remove the unchecked authority of the teacher and replace it with the much more needed social worker, community oriented facilitator. Build relationships of self-confidence and trust with the institution and subject matter.
  • Open up the data. Rather than vilify them, put them in the right hands —more often than not, on students themselves— and encourage iterative decision making.

The list above may sound vague or idealistic. It is. Part of the new processes and relationships with knowledge and institutions, is realizing there is not one source of knowledge, especially no unchecked ones; and that the ways knowledge is produced, validated, exchanged and applied are always subject to change. They should welcome scrutiny and careful experimentation at every turn.

The University should not die, but elearning should distance itself

Speaking of new relationships is a much more promising road than talks about dismantling or cancelling. I am not alone in believing that not only universities play essential roles in society, but perhaps their goals would be much better suited the more distance they take from teaching and degree granting.

History is in favor of the argument. Ohio University economics professor Richard Vedder notes that, even at their peak, college and university enrollments have always been a fraction of the American population. Conversely, the most impactful activities of universities in society aren’t in their degree granting abilities, but rather:

  • Leading on basic and applied cutting edge research
  • Generating global collaboration networks and interaction processes
  • Help establishing standards and methods of proof for the quality of acquired skills. (While simultaneously removing themselves from the role of implementing said methods, for transparency’s sake.)
  • And what is perhaps the most underestimated role of all: To communicate scientific findings and values to the communities they serve, in order to play a more ambitious and effective role in the education of citizens.

For years, universities have become marketing and branding powerhouses. I’m a strong believer that these skills can be put to good use and benefit of all. All we need is to take away their ability to influence and compete for the financial decisions of people. Campuses could play better, more open roles and support learning, collaboration and vigorous debate, free from the pressures of higher education.

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