An avalanche in education?

ippr with Pearson recently published a stimulating discussion of  future challenges to  universities, by Michael Barber and colleagues. I found it both elegantly and accessibly written, and radical without being shrill as too many futurist accounts are. It contains a wealth of examples of interesting innovations (though I have the sneaking feeling that all the authorshave a primary emotional bond to their backgrounds in highly elite institutions).

More importantly, it identifies a range of developments which are already discernible and which might well combine in the near future to trigger a highly destructive landslide in our current university set-up (hence the title, An Avalanche is Coming). These include changes in the price-quality relationship (or perceptions of that relationship), universal accessibility to high-quality teaching via the net, changes in employer demands for skill and a much stronger focus on outcomes which go beyond standard certificates/degrees. It’s the combination of these shifts that creates the rumbling noises detected by the report.

I’m semi-detached now from universities and higher education policy, so have no close feel for how well these challenges are grasped in the institutions themselves. It’s interesting to note that the authors explicitly look more to thinktanks, including my old stamping-ground of the OECD, than to academic research for influential analysis of education (though they might say that mightn’t they, given the provenance/sponsorship of the report). For what it’s worth, I think they are quite correct in much of their trend analysis, especially where they discuss changes in the content of what people will learn in the future.

The report puts out 5 ’emerging models’ of universities: elite, mass, niche, local and lifelong. I’m not sure I find these discrete categories very convincing. In particular, the ‘university as lifelong mechanism’ seems to me rather an afterthought, and weakly sketched – but maybe that’s my prejudice, as someone who has spent much of his life trying to nudge universities into doing more for adult learners.

Where is the Paula Principle angle? The report makes no reference to gender. This isn’t surprising, or culpable (though I think mmore could have been made of demographics generally). What is relevant to the PP is the brief discussion of part-time higher education, since a radical shift in worktime patterns is the major PP recommendation. Here we run into a familiar problem – how/whether it makes sense to mark off ‘part-time’.

Barber notes the attempts that have been made in the UK to shift the balance of provision to make more room for part-timers – and their very limited success. In a sense, the Avalanche report as a whole is a strong argument for a different time mix – or rather, the trends it identifies are all about a different approach to how people will mix their learning, work and experience/adventure times in future, and of the need for higher education to come to terms with that. I would of course have liked it to be more forthright and explicit about that. But it’s a valuable contribution to the debate;  good enough even to make me wish I could be inside a few university senate/council rooms to hear it debated, and that’s quite something.

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