The Future of Higher Education


Just read an interesting article in The New York Times that talks of the future of higher education.

I don’t know all that much about higher education in the US but I know the sector has serious problems here in Australia.

Here we have moved to a funding model where Universities are more and more relying on full fee paying international students. This means that the high Australian dollar has hit the sector hard.

I don’t think we can have healthy universities when they don’t have guaranteed funding. I don’t find the move towards only degrees that have a “career” at the end a good one. I realise that the majority of students may want that but I feel we always need to allow for students who want to study the “softer subjects. I would like to have Universities always prepared to teach the Arts.

At the moment the New South Wales government is taking a huge axe to the tertiary education sector that they fund, TAFE colleges.

One of their rallying cries is that courses at Technical and Further Education (TAFE) colleges should be vocational and tied to the needs of industry.

Let me first poke some big holes in that argument. Number one, over 1 in 10 of the Australian population is currently employed in a job category that didn’t exist ten years ago. That’s right, they are employed in job like writing applications for iPads, even selling iPads, working in social media, god only knows what else.

The second hole is that industry has had an extremely poor record at predicting their employment needs more than a year out and quite a lot of these vocational courses take at least two years, most apprenticeships are three or four years.

The final hole is that if we train people to just one trade or career what happens when it disappears?

In an industry I was close to, the graphic arts, typesetters used to be employed to sit at a keyboard behind a large machine and produce the galleys of type required for newspapers and magazines which were then laid out by a layout artist. Machine typesetting emerged in the late 19th century and had disappeared entirely by the end of the twentieth. Even quicker have been the emergence and disappearance of jobs in technology. At one time a computer required an “operator” – now a job that was considered good in the sixities has vanished. A family friend was a well trained TV repairman, but the replacement of valves in the back of TVs with discrete components and then boards made his training useless.

So we train people to one career with one skill set in our new “vocational” based training. Ten or fifteen years later it is a total waste.

We need to teach people how to learn, how to educate themselves, how to think, how to problem solve and then give them the resources to begin one of what might be a number of careers.

It turns out that fine arts, English and philosophy, along with a lot of the “Arts” and humanities are just the right courses to teach those skills.

Back in the late fifties and early sixties IBM was snapping up any Arts graduate that wanted a job. They discovered that they could teach most of them to program easily, while it was much harder to teach people who had done engineering degrees to think, learn and problem solve.

Education is not about vocations, education is about learning. Cutting courses that are not vocationally based is false economy.

What do you think?

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One thought on “The Future of Higher Education

  1. Pingback: The Vocational MBA: The argument for pairing trade and business education | Speaker's Chair

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