It is not very popular in the tweedy circles of the Chronicle of Higher Education to call higher education a “product” or a “commodity.” I am not only a subscriber to that paper but occasionally wear tweed, earned a PhD, and have taught or served in administration of or on the board of graduate and postgraduate educational institutions for 25 years.
Yet for millions of families and hundreds of undergraduate, graduate and professional institutions the current college and graduate school model has become unsustainable. I would even say that the model has become unsustainable for many of the institutions themselves. Unsustainable is not a popular phrase to many, but it is one that must be faced.
Tuition must rise to meet soaring faculty and employee benefit costs. Infrastructures must be maintained even as federal and state support dwindles amidst headlines of major American cities going bankrupt. Development officers are stretched to their limits as philanthropists and foundations await the endgame for a shifting American economy. Wall Street soars by a Bernanke stimulus balloon that can’t go on forever without addressing serious foundational fault lines in the Western and U.S. economies. All of this impacts educational institutions. And this hits parents and grandparents and the kids themselves. This is not only an American crisis, but one that is causing consternation amongst Parliament about, for example, the “Golden Triangle” (Oxford, Cambridge, University of London) and the exact ledger book problems everyone else is facing
When notoriously Keynesian economic systems fail, as they must eventually do, they usually don’t find a totally depleted and dependent populace waiting for “Central Planning” to tell them what do next. The God-given sense of freedom in the soul of man releases its “fight or flight” impulses and, well, the Free Market springs up like young, green fauna out of the Socialist ashes.
I believe that is already happening today.
When the Professor Jonathan Kydd, Dean of the University of London International Programme, said, “Distance learning is one of those fields where the rate of growth always exceeds the rate of growth that the experts have predicted,” he was also reflecting the other side of the coin: the rate of decline is dropping faster than expected in issues of traditional brick and mortar sustainability.
Higher Education, at its most gluttonous stage in life, right before the inevitable heart attack, is the last relic (other than the Government) of union-controlled, faculty-run, budget-busting, uncontrolled-central-planning machinery. Yes, some of the regimental-tie-behemoths are endowed to keep them paying million dollar salaries to presidents and VPs for a hundred years and giving away their courses to boot, but the model at-large, so well protected by its oaken doors and English ivy walls for so long, and emulated by lesser state and sometimes even evangelical and Catholic Christian universities, are giving way to the increasingly clamorous crowd of everyday folk demanding a grassroots approach rather than climbing ivy status quo. How did Voltaire describe history? “History is but the pattern of silken slippers descending the stairs to the thunder of hobnailed boots climbing upward from below.”
This is precisely the situation now. The fearful administration, faculty, board and nostalgic alumni huddle together like wounded Lords under their boardroom tables as the liberated (middle and upper middle class) peasants beat on the door, having heard the Magna Carta read: “Higher education is to make one more like God, not to Lord it over the people like a god!” One can even make out the figure of a sneaky philanthropist in the mob, protesting at the building named after his grandfather.
The “Top Universities in the World” are now offering fully non residential courses. The University of London is the oldest in the world doing this, with its London School of Economics, King’s College, UCL, Royal Holloway, and other constituent colleges in the top 1% of all universities in the world.
Indeed, the same institution that graduated as diverse of students (from ages) as HG Wells and Nelson Mandela, Greer Garson and Bishop Tutu through their residential, non residential, and hybrid relationship with universities in the Empire
and later in the Commonwealth and the U.S., continues to be called the world’s leading distance education institution.
I quote from the “Good University Ranking Guide:”
“Founded in 1836, The University of London is one of the largest and most prestigious universities in the UK. It has over 100,000 students in total, plus an additional 40,000 external students in over 180 countries.
The university is recognized internationally as a centre of academic excellence and it has produced over 55 Nobel Prize winners to date. Its famous alumni include the Prime Minister of Mozambique, President of South Africa, President of Zimbabwe, to name a few.”
That is important. It is important because The University of London has grown in numbers and in reputation through its quality non residential program since 1836. Yet this has hardly drained the growth and prestige of, say, the London School of Economics, University College London, Goldsmiths, Royal Holloway, or any of the other 16 component schools.
The success of the University, in all of its programs, has led to a new scheme announced recently in which it will partner with an American tech firm to provide an “open university” system in the United States to give away courses.
One has only to gaze upon the magnificent structure of Royal Holloway to see that the University is very committed to “brick and mortar” in its future as well as its past. Yet, the University of London offers a thriving model for others. It should also alleviate fears of faculty and alumni that reaching out, as they have done since the mid 19th century, will stifle research within the walls and manicured lawns of the beautiful and understandingly proud edifices of learning. Degrees are handed out by none other than the Chancellor of the University, HRH The Princess Royal, Anne.
Now here is where I am really going with this: on the same list that the University of London was number one, Stanford University was number Ten. That is a very good sign. Indeed, it is a sign that there is coming a time very soon, as in every new era, that the weak will be weeded out and the strong, like University of London, will continue to thrive as they have. Yet they may have to fight off Stanford, Harvard, Oxford, Georgia Tech, the University of North Carolina, and maybe some sharp opportunists like Swansea, Bangor, Kansas State University, Pepperdine, or Vanderbilt to maintain that number one status in non residential education. Stanford is a beautiful campus and serves an immeasurable place in the Palo Alto community and, indeed, in our nation as a first-class, residential research university. Yet, she can and must be more than that in order to advance into the era that is before us. But Stanford knows that. Stanford is the tenth best online university in the world and that means it will only move higher. I know. I have been to the Silicon Valley and listened to the dreams and visions of the educators there about bringing their resources to the world. They did that without even blinking over fears of losing students to the campus.
Upstart distant ed pros like Regent University of Virginia have fared very well. They are earning a great reputation in distance education that is actually enhancing their residential campus work. Their days as CBN U are over. In fact, the generation now making out their college stretch, mid, and safe lists have never heard of CBN University. Yet they know Regent. They have proven themselves as a strong, non residential player in a field of older giants. As a result, their entire program, especially their residential undergraduate, graduate and professional programs, are on the upswing as strong considerations by students with ACTs of 28-30, normally those who also list Davidson College, William and Mary, Middlebury College, Washington and Lee, and George Washington University. I suspect there will be others like Regent. Conversely, the degree mills are already on the way out. I am not talking about for profit institutions—indeed, I suspect they will have a unique and healthy place in the broadening of educational opportunities. My predictions of those who will not exist tomorrow (or at least no longer matter) are the unaccredited (and uninterested) institutions that not only fail in offering quality education for their constituency, but prefer to have no accountability with peers. This is more than protesting the Department of Education. This is hiding something: standards. Such, and you know their names, will go the way of many businesses who got in early, got in cheap, made some big bucks, and then went out of business because quality demanded something they couldn’t deliver. Competition does that. The separating of the wheat and the chaff is going to go on for another few years, though, and this will not happen overnight. Yet, what is emerging will change the way guidance counselors and homeschool parents help high school juniors and seniors prepare for college (and community colleges, trade schools or for profit technical “grey shirt” educational institutions that are so needed in the new economy). The new world of nonresidential degrees from top world class universities with productive internships, creative hybrids with multi-university faculty, government agencies, and closer working partnerships between universities in various nations to serve their students.
And, yes, there will be the traditional “drop-off-Susie-for-Freshman-Move-In-Day.” That will not change. In fact, it will continue only if the more creative market demands are met by universities. This is what will sustain the model that we have known in the past. This is what University of London has taught us.
It was said that when Netflix and Apple TV hit the market, the movies would be over. It didn’t happen. The movies are flourishing (when they can actually make something you can bring your family to or your wife or date to without having to apologize). It is not an “either-or world” we are in. It is a “both-and” scenario. And that is what free enterprise is all about. It is high time education learned that lesson too. Without it, some of the biggest and many of the smallest will not be able to make the grade and advance into the next level. Not everyone will. For those who do, there is an exciting new world of higher as well as broader education that will serve the needs of the people and of the free market. You can have that and keep your campus too. If fact if you don’t have that mindset you will lose your campus.
And as my Aunt Eva told me as I went off to school, “Son, you do what you have to do. Learn to study the way you have to study. But failure is not an option. We can’t afford it.”
The University of London, the grandaddy of them all, and now others like Stanford University, the respectable newcomer, and Regent University, the upstart new kid on the block, are teaching us that you can do what it takes and still excel. Failure for us is not an option. Our generation and those after us cannot afford it.
We don’t have to wait any longer. The bus is here. The door is open. It is time to step in and join those who are already there.
References Used in this Article
Scott Carlson. “At Sustainability Meeting, a Vision of the Future Draws Applause …” 2012. 3 Aug. 2013 <http://chronicle.com/article/At-Sustainability-Meeting-a/135134/>
“Degrees go the distance – Telegraph.” 2011. 3 Aug. 2013 <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/expateducation/8487609/Degrees-go-the-distance.html>
“Week of reddit.com/r/quotes (Thursday 12/20 – Wednesday 12/26).” 2013. 3 Aug. 2013 <http://redditweekly.com/weekly?s=top&subreddit=quotes&to_time=1356566399>
“Distance learning: the students who combine education and …” 2012. 3 Aug. 2013 <http://careers.guardian.co.uk/distance-learning-university-of-london>
See “Empire and Higher Education Internationalisation – University World News.” RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Aug. 2013.
The University of London, an Introduction.” Google Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Aug. 2013. <http://books.google.com/books?id=cU9NAAAAYAAJ&dq=Chancellor’s%20Report%20on%20the%20growth%20of%20the%20University%20of%20London&source=gbs_similarbooks>.
Harte, Negley B. The University London: An Illustrated History, 1836-1986. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2000.[amazon asin=&text=Buy from Amazon.com]
Andrew Marszal. “Distance learning: University of London signs up to US-based …” 2012. 3 Aug. 2013 <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/universityeducation/9553211/Distance-learning-University-of-London-signs-up-to-US-based-massive-open-online-course-pioneer-Coursera.html>