Is there a crisis in HE?

A crisis can be defined as a time of intense difficulty, or a time when important or difficult decisions must be made. Are we at that time in HE, and if we are, what is our window of opportunity for making decisions that will alleviate the difficulty we are in?

I actually do believe that we are in a time of crisis – a time of prolonged difficulty when important decisions must be made. It is prolonged because of the conservative nature of the institutions we belong to, and changing course across the sector is a very long, drawn out process. The reason I believe that it is a crisis is because the upheaval that surrounds us s moving at a pace that we can not or are unwilling to match. Below are the reasons that I think we are in crisis. Most of what I am writing about doesn’t apply to you, because if you are reading this, you are probably aware, and are trying to do something about it. I’m talking here about HE as a sector, not the champions trying to make a difference.

Expansion of the Academy

The first point of strain is the massification of HE. In The Classic Slum Roberts wrote that the experience of WWI exposed the working poor to another way of life, and increasingly, people were no longer satisfied with their place in society (at least the poor weren’t). WWII increased that dissatisfaction, and led to a significant increase in young men (and eventually, young women) looking for a way into the middle classes. Universities began to seriously expand, both in numbers, and in the number of students admitted in the 1960s and 70s. This trend has continued, almost unabated, for over forty years.

During that forty years, teaching has become more efficient in order to deal with the large numbers. Thinking and discussion spaces have disappeared to be replaced by ever increasing lecture spaces. More and more students are now listening to a single lecturer – epitomised by the new xMOOCs where the lecture theatre has become almost limitless in size. Assessment has been streamlined with memorisation and recall coming to define learning. Innovation in teaching is defined in many instances as introducing something to the assessment that is not an essay and a final (or mid-term and final). Exams are increasingly objective (read MCQ), with a brave few opting for short answers. Not very satisfying, but pragmatic solutions to class sizes that routinely number in the hundreds. Those who resist this movement to efficient teaching end up looking prematurely aged and haggard as they struggle with the massively increased workload in teaching – along with the other expectations of a career in academia.

Research, Research, Research…

The academy was founded for learning and scholarship with teaching at the core. Only in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century did the production of knowledge (research) become entrenched as a core part of being a university’s mission. Since that time, the reputation of a university is largely defined by the excellence of the research that it produces. The primary career path is through publication esteem and grant capture. If you were to name the most important foreign institutions that you could think of, they would invariably be prestigious research institutions. The assumption of the general population is that a good reputation as an HE institution means good teaching and learning. However, we (those of us behind the curtain) know that institutional reputations are based principally on research.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does result in a couple of problems in a time of uncertainty. The first is an increased drive toward efficiency in teaching. If the demands of my career means that a significant portion of my time needs to be devoted to research, that means that I need to put as little time as possible into my teaching. Even the most talented researchers need to put in <80% into research to stay at the top. This is expensive for an institution, and someone has to pay (more on this later). This leads to a reduction of time available for students, and a drive to come up with ways of assessing students that will not take much of their valuable time – hence, objective tests and overloaded postgraduates. Parents won’t pat thousands or tens of thousands to have their children taught by postgraduate students, but the assessment regime can be populated by cheap labour. An institution can’t afford to have their expensive researchers spend too much time away from their research – that’s why they hired them in the first place. I know of a department where the student entitlement for the supervision of a year long, undergraduate dissertation is three hours!

The other problem with the research is king culture is what that culture does when research isn’t excellent. In most universities, there are three expected activities for career progression: research, teaching, and other (administration or external) activities. Lecturers can focus on two out of the three of these activities, and progress nicely through the ranks and have a satisfying academic career. The majority of academics in research intensive universities tend to focus on research, and one of the other two. If you are a good researcher, your teaching doesn’t have to be anything other than solid for progression to the highest ranks. In a non research intensive institution, the picture is tricker. Those who choose to focus on research tend to have a difficult time of it. There isn’t a research structure to really support them, and it is very difficult to compete with the highest fliers. As a result, the research is mediocre, which leads to a proliferation of mediocre journals and publications with no real value added to our society. This leaves administration as the activity of choice for a large number of academics from non-research institutions. The unfortunate result is that the mark of an administrator is to make rules. this ends up stifling teaching, stifling what little research can be done, and making life difficult for everyone concerned. This was illustrated for me when I was an external validator for a MSc Research in Psychology at a non-research intensive university. At one point in the proceedings, I suggested that the department would have difficulty having a rigourous research programme in a department with no history of research, and that they needed to develop a solid research strategy alongside the degree programme. My eyes were opened when, from about halfway down a 700 yard long table, a head bobbed down, looked at me, and said, “The centre sets strategy and the periphery implements that strategy.”, bobbed back up in the distance, and left me speechless for a moment or two.

In both the case of the research intensive and non-research intensive institution, the prevailing academic culture – centred around research – robs teaching of its vitality.

Information Age

The final contributor to the crisis in HE is our entry into the information age. The two issues raised above have been with us for some time, and the academy has managed to cope. However, the arrival of the information age has heralded two phenomena that have changed the nature of the game: information abundance, and information glut. Readers of my blog will be well aware of my views on information abundance. It is all around us, easily and inexpensively accessible, and has changed the underlying reasons for universities to exist. Scholars do not need to be gathered together to maintain and transmit information to novices and each other.

Information glut is the explosion of the amount of information that is available for us to teach. Our model of teaching has been based on content in the past, and continues to be based on content in the present. Our answer to the glut is to just do more of what worked last year – expand the number of classes and modules, presented and assessed in exactly the same way we did last year, and just cover new material. How long


can it continue?

A problem, not related directly to HE,  that the information age has fostered is the mismatch in the skill set our graduates have and the modern, networked workplace needs. The primary skill honed with super efficient teaching is memorisation. Conformity is highly rewarded, obedience and attention to detail are necessary, and the culture is aversive to risk taking. Modern workplaces are trying to emulate the working environment of places like Google, and have created a workplace training industry worth about $125 billion a year in the US as they take our graduates and try to re-skill the workers with the ability to be creative, to think, synthesise, critically evaluate,  to show initiative, to have passion. Up to 60% of our graduates over the past five years are under or un employed. Does the world not have problems and challenges that could use the energy of millions of young people to solve? We are producing the wrong kinds of graduates for todays world. We haven’t equipped them with the skills to deal with the world today – we have taught them to pass tests!

Why is this a Crisis?

All of these things, taken together, have resulted in a crisis for HE, and we must take responsibility for most of it. Why, because we have been unwilling to change to fit our environment. Students pay massive tuition fees today in much of the world, not to pay for their learning, but to support the entrenched research culture that pervades HE. The efficient teaching methods used across HE today do not justify the tuition paid by the students. If this were the case, xMOOCs would be unaffordable. I was reading, just last week, that the cost of developing and running a single MOOC is about £35,000. The argument was that institutions need to think about how they can fund this development cost in the absence of an income stream. But, let’s have a look at what that really means from a teaching perspective. If I am running a highly successful MOOC with 100,000 people on it, that means that the MOOC is costing £.35 per person to develop and run. A MOOC with 10,000 students would cost £3.50 per student, while a MOOC with 1000 student would cost £35 per student. If a three year (36 classes) or four year (40 classes) programme was made up entirely of MOOCs, the cost of this efficient teaching would range from £12.60 for a large (100,000 students), 36 module programme to £1,400 for a small (1000 students) programme. And we are charging tens of thousands! As a result, we have a TED solution – bring in an outsider (commercialisation) who can do the same thing, with equal quality, and charge less money. Let’s stop pretending that the quality of our efficient teaching methods is any better than what a private provider can do. Like it or not, it is happening folks.

On the other hand, we could go back to making teaching the students the core mission of academia. Not with lip service, but really putting teaching at the heart of what we do. We could teach the students the skills the world needs today to solve what appear to be intractable problems. However, this takes time. Time of individual lecturers. Time away from research and administration. Time to spend challenging their thinking, celebrating their creativity, fanning their passion, and supporting their risk taking.

Unfortunately, we don’t reward that kind of activity. We talk about rewarding it, but with caveats to protect the status quo. An international reputation is necessary to scale the heights of academia today – and how do you gain an international reputation fostering understanding? How do you gain an international reputation talking about fostering understanding? You don’t.


As a result, we are facing a crisis. It doesn’t have to be that way, but it is.


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