The current state of higher education has become the center of attention for many people in the last few years. In the interest of stirring up the discussion, I would like to offer my own views. Whether you agree with them or not, I invite you to join the dialogue in the comments below!
To begin with, I believe the current model of higher education is fundamentally broken. It is becoming increasingly harder for people to work their way to a formal degree, and the few who do, often find themselves with a mountain of debts to pay. The proposed solution to this usually involves an increase in the role of government through subsidies and cheap student loans. Many wonder why states aren’t investing more on education given that it is probably one of the greatest keys to unlock long-term economic development. But the fact is that an increase in government spending will do little if the economics of the underlying model are unsustainable.
In the majority of universities, students are paying large amounts of money for mediocre courses taught by mostly mediocre professors. If you want to learn the state of the art, you are better off finding the information you want online. In the last few years, there has been an explosion of high quality free or very cheap courses, video series and books covering almost every branch of human knowledge. For the first time in history, information is no longer locked inside institutions and that is a great thing, because it is now reaching of a much bigger audience.
The elitist concept of the university as sacred temple (or monopoly, if you want) of knowledge is slowly diluting, and that’s a win for free and democratized access to education. In the next few years, we are going to see entrepreneurs taking advantage of this huge opportunity to disrupt the aging education model and offer a higher quality product at a lower price. This does not mean that universities won’t play a role in the future. Not at all. They are great places for certain types of people, and they serve a very important role in the advancement of knowledge, mostly through research and development. It also seems really hard to imagine a doctor or physician who didn’t go to formal education. I’m definitely not advocating for the end of universities. I am just happy that we are experiencing a period of democratization and openness of knowledge never seen before, and I’m sure this is just the start of much bigger changes and innovation in the education space. Universities have never been, and probably never will be, democratized, inclusive institutions. It is just not possible to offer Harvard or MIT quality lectures to millions of people at once.
The bad news, though, is that young learners who opt for something different will need to take a bigger responsibility for defining their education. They can’t expect to be taken by the hand and guided through the hallways of knowledge. This is how education should have always been because, as far as I know, there isn’t a single person with the same interests as other. Institutions usually cater to the lowest denominator and in the process, end up alienating most of their students. In Ancient Greece, philosophers and free thinkers gathered together to discuss their new developments and ideas. There wasn’t a predefined program to follow or required assignments. Something similar happened during the Renaissance period, where many people, of which Leonardo Da Vinci was a prime example, managed to master a wide range of disciplines, because they were driven by curiosity and passion for their work.
There are also some valid concerns with this model. We invariably come to the question of how much is a degree worth in your professional career. I cannot deny that it still holds a lot of value, but this is probably going to change in the future. Many companies today are starting to ask their prospective employees to justify why they spent so much money and time in degrees where they learned so little. It also doesn’t help that in this world of rapid change, you are expected to learn and improve most of your skills on the job if you want to stay sharp and competitive. It is very difficult to learn or acquire rapidly evolving skills through formal education.
Now, don’t get me wrong, university is still one of the best places to connect with smart and young people. I just wonder whether it is necessary to spend so much money for this pleasure. I am sure there are lots of other organizations that could offer a viable alternative for independent learners in the medium-term. Going to conferences and similar events, for example, are great ways to network with people with varied backgrounds. Participating in nonprofits is also a very good way to connect with others and develop your skills. There is no single answer, because in the end, nothing can completely replace the experience of going university. These are just some other ways to get similar experiences.
All in all, I am not worried that universities are becoming gradually more selective and elitist. If companies want to stay in business, they will need to hire the smartest people regardless of their academic qualifications. The world of entrepreneurship already doesn’t care whether you went to a prestigious university or not. It just cares about your ability to learn fast and get things done. What we need is a society that opens the door to whoever wants to follow their own path, with more inclusive institutions and great incentives for innovation in the education space.
I would like to close this article with some resources that may be helpful, whether you are an independent learner or just want to complement your traditional education:
**The Great Courses **–http://www.thegreatcourses.com/
Khan Academy –http://www.khanacademy.org/
MIT OpenCourseWare –http://ocw.mit.edu/
iTunes U –http://www.apple.com/education/itunes-u/