I wasn’t going to write about the ludicrous new higher education paper, released last month by the UK Institute for Public Policy Research, entitled, An Avalanche is Coming; I didn’t think it had enough exposure to warrant it. But, since the Globe has now seen fit to publish an extract, I can go whole hog.
It starts off with bog-standard, “sky-is-falling” stuff: the global economy is a mess (true, but presumably temporary), the cost of higher education is increasing faster than inflation (true since the beginning of time), the value of a degree is falling (in most countries it hasn’t), and “competition is heating up” (MOOCs, basically). Somehow, these weak propositions add up to the argument that, massive change is inevitable.
The paper goes on to posit that the modern university is essentially a bundling of ten different “features” (in actuality, a weird amalgam of inputs, throughputs, and outputs), to wit: research, degrees, city prosperity, faculty, students, governance/administration, curriculum, teaching & learning, assessment and (student) experience. The impending “avalanche” will occur because technology and economics are permitting some unbundling of these services, and because in each of those ten areas, universities – allegedly – face growing competition.
For instance, the paper claims that universities’ dominance in research is being challenged by “think tanks” (hilarious – I await the Fraser Institute’s next paper on the Higgs Boson); it also claims – seriously – that the student experience is being challenged because it can be replicated by “meet-ups, youth clubs, and learning communities”. As for the rest, it’s all basically MOOCs, MOOCs, MOOCs – they’re going to change everything, don’t you know!
There is this fantasy out there – shared by silicon valley types and big money consultants, alike – that just because unbundling can happen that it will happen. Sure, it happened in the music industry – but that’s not a universal experience. It hasn’t been the case, for instance, in the real estate industry – mostly because the idea of going DIY on the biggest financial decision of your life scares the bejesus out of most people. And if you asked me whether higher education is closer in nature to music or housing, my answer would be pretty obvious.
I urge people to read the paper in order to get a sense of just how unhinged the higher education’s self-styled “revolutionaries” can actually get. Though the paper ends with some sensible points about the need for institutions to sharpen their value propositions, these recommendations in no way flow organically from the wholly evidence-free view that student demand is collapsing in the face of MOOCs. The notion this paper peddles – that positive change requires massive disruption – isn’t just wrong; it’s dangerous. It needs to be countered.