Will Universities Survive, Thrive in the 21st Century?

Will Universities Survive, Thrive in the 21st Century?

While new universities are springing up in many Asian countries, there has also been talk of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) posing a threat to their continued existence. Does the future of higher education lie online, rather than within the traditional brick-and-mortar setting? Four distinguished scholars and experts in the field of higher education – Prof. Matthew Hartley, Dr Molly Lee, Mr Alan Ruby and Prof. N.V. Varghese – convened at The HEAD Foundation on 12 May to share their thoughts at a public panel event.

Dr Molly Lee posed the question of whether MOOCs are a form of “disruptive technology”, much like budget airlines and smartphones – MOOCs have changed the face of higher education, and have beneficially increased access to such education opportunities for millions. But is it just a passing fad?
Mr Alan Ruby pointed out that the intention of MOOCs is not to achieve 100-percent completion rates, but rather to present an opportunity for learning freely, to each student’s own preferred extent. MOOCs are therefore different from universities; it complements the university experience. Citing the example of MOOCs offered by the University of Pennsylvania which attracted about 1 million registrants, Mr Ruby pointed out that completion rates generally stood at about 5 to 11%.

Prof N.V. Varghese underscored that most people who sign up for MOOCs are already students. In a way, MOOCs therefore accentuate the existing inequalities between those who have a degree and those who do not. After all, university degrees could be thought of as a “defensive investment” – one must have a degree so as not to lose out to others in job search in a globalized marketplace. Prof. Varghese reminded the audience that universities have historically been conservative institution, resistant to change. “Universities are propagators of change, but don’t undergo change themselves,” he quipped.

While higher education systems will continue to expand in its traditional form in emerging countries like China and India, the situation of universities in the United States has been somewhat different. Hearkening back to the 1990s, Prof. Matthew Hartley cited naysayers who forecasted the demise of universities. Contrary to those predictions, universities in the US have survived and thrived, albeit through renewed forms and missions.

Universities in the US have shown resilience in evolving beyond being just ivory tower institutions. They have a new-found zeal in solving real world problems.

Prof. Hartley cited the example of an impactful University of Pennsylvania programme of preventing lead poisoning among children in Philadelphia, which saw academics collaborating with community stakeholders to solve a community challenge.

“That’s the kind of work that universities should do to remain relevant,” he said.

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