Higher Education Strategy Associates

New Economies, New University

Yesterday, we looked at how the economy was being increasingly divided into a successful, productive globally-traded goods sector, and a more sheltered mostly public-service focused sector. I also noted how certain parts of the university such as engineering, computer science, biomedicine, and finance/management have tended to adopt the views of people involved in the first group of industries, while arts, education, social work, etc., align with the second.

This matters because, increasingly, governments are getting concerned about productivity. Due to a combination of fiscal and demographic pressures, there is an ever-growing need to increase tax revenues and reduce expenditures. Governments need more companies to succeed in exports and they need to find productivity gains in the public sector. This attitude defines how the public service approaches program reviews, including support for post-secondary education.

In terms of teaching, we’ll probably hear a lot of rhetoric about how STEM subjects need to be funded, at the expense of arts, humanities, etc. I don’t think that’s likely; the sheer cost of teaching STEM subjects will likely act as a deterrent to any significant expansion. There will, however, be a lot of pressure to see graduates from the fields that feed the public sector (primarily arts) contribute to the productivity revolution needed to keep public services affordable. And here, I think, there are some interesting curricular possibilities.

In his new book, The Coming Prosperity, Philip Auerswald argues that the key skills in the new economy are what he calls the “three C’s”: connecting, creating and contributing. Now, it shouldn’t be beyond the wit of university educators – especially in the humanities and social sciences – to create a curriculum designed to teach and promote these values. In fact, many of them claim to foster exactly such skills already.

The problem is that currently, the system of subject majors forces students into subject specializations (e.g., history, philosophy) that require a mastering of skills that are much narrower than what graduates in the labour market actually need unless they are headed to grad school. But why not return to a broader, pre-WWII liberal arts approach (which also happens to be a more financially efficient one), suffused with a program of encouraging the three C’s? It would be a curriculum at once traditional and modern, and more importantly one which could plausibly be described as being productivity-oriented.

There could be big first mover advantages to the institution that is the first to work out how to do this well. Who’s up for it?

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