Given the soaring popularity of online learning, it’s fair to say that the future of higher education will incorporate it. But what else do we need to consider when we look forward?
If we’re aiming to improve education, we should use the global shift toward online learning to address some of the major issues that higher education currently faces. There are plenty of changes that we need to see in this space, but before we get to those, let’s take a look at the challenges that set their stage.
The hurdles of higher education
How many articles have you seen over the years about student debt that is paid off over decades? The costs involved in furthering your education are astronomical and they often discourage potential students from taking the plunge – and can you blame them? Although higher education often leads to better career prospects, many young people don’t have the option to choose. This financial burden widens the educational gap between those who can afford to study and those who can’t.
Another element that needs addressing is the elitism connected to many academic institutions. Having a degree or postgraduate education isn’t always a common achievement. It’s often held by those with contributing factors like personal stability and generational wealth. This isn’t to say that it’s impossible to get qualified without those factors, but they generally promote it.
Individuals that come from areas without a prestigious university within a commutable distance also face the challenge of either settling for a university that they don’t want to attend or having to weigh up the possibility of relocating. These geographic barriers to learning can have a ripple effect.
Lastly, when did hitting an all-nighter to cram for your exam the next day compare well to your job? If studying is the bridge to your future career, it’s hanging by a thread. There aren’t enough universal skills ingrained in higher education – which leads to our first prediction.
In this brilliant article about the trajectory of education, Catherine Friday explains that universities need a future-back approach so that our present actions put students in the line of future growth. After all, what’s the point of learning something that you won’t actually use or that won’t promote corporate development in the future?
Jobs and duties are also changing drastically. A doctor that studied medicine in the ‘70s wouldn’t have believed you if you told them that robotic surgery would start in the following decade, let alone that it would be so prominent in the 21st century. The same is true of our current perception of industries. But while we can’t be exactly sure how jobs will change in the future, we can place a focus on universal skills.
Universal skills can be applied in practically any field and we all use them, whether we’re aware of it or not. This shift in skill development would ideally begin in high school because the speed of education is rapidly increasing here. Implementing systems that promote universal skill development during these years will lay a solid foundation before they embark on tertiary studies.
There have been several predictions for the skills that we’ll need in the future, such as this list of soft skills that will be a must-have in 2030:
- The four Cs (critical thinking, creative thinking, communicating and collaborating)
- Contextualised intelligence (CI)
- Cognitive flexibility (CF)
- Social and emotional intelligence (EI)
- Leadership skills
- Entrepreneurial mindset
- Negotiation and persuasive skills
- Lateral thinking
- Work ethic and integrity
Regardless of how practical duties may change in the future, these skills have remained throughout the eras and will continue to. But more to the point, these skills will also be necessary for us to promote change and continue our collective evolution. The greatest innovations are a result of these skills.
Higher education isn’t currently including these skills in their syllabuses. To futureproof the careers of students, they need to be learning how to effectively work with a diverse set of individuals. They need to practise their creativity and problem-solving abilities. They need to stretch their lateral thinking and cognitive flexibility legs in an arena where they fail forward – not get fired. Aren’t there times in your day-to-day job responsibilities where you wish you’d learnt how to use soft skills in an academic environment? It isn’t too late for the next generations of students.
The curricula need to undergo disruptive changes to provide more comprehensive and responsive programmes. This is no easy feat and can take a considerable amount of time to perfect since you need to get the entire institution on board. It’s possible that the complexity of this process has cemented more traditional views of education. But we need to shake up the system if we want to truly enact positive and far reaching change.
Of course, some fields will always require degrees. We wouldn’t want a doctor to operate on us without being qualified, just as we’d prefer for the engineers building our bridges to know exactly how to prevent them from collapsing. In these cases, soft and universal skills would act to supplement the industry knowledge. On the other hand, many jobs are arising that don’t necessarily require higher education, but rather more informal on-the-job education. This would call for tertiary education to work more closely with employers to close skill gaps and find alternative education solutions whilst working.
From the lecture hall to the world
The next element that we’re anticipating is a focus on learning in more environments than just the same hall everyday for three years. Diana El-Azar suggests that instead of a “learn from anywhere” approach, universities and colleges should adopt a “learn from everywhere” approach. There are advantages to students pacing their own schedule and completing assignments wherever they may be. It integrates learning into their everyday lives and shows them how their coursework can play out in the world around them.
El-Azar also explains how active learning is a better alternative to traditional lectures. The future of higher education should include opportunities for students to initially learn about a topic, then review and practise it several times. Lectures provide the initial introduction to the concepts, but students won’t retain this information unless they are able to continually review it. This is an example of how the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve plays out in education, as the graph below illustrates.
Universities and colleges will need to keep this pattern in mind when planning their programmes. If all that higher education provides is someone explaining a concept once, students may as well find the information on YouTube. With more frequent reviews of skills and concepts, students will have a firmer grip on their new talents and will go further.
Breaking down socio-economic barriers
Considering how student debt has almost become a lifelong commitment and has discouraged many people from seeking tertiary qualifications, this is an absolutely critical component that the future of higher education needs to address. Statistics show that college tuition, fees and accommodation have increased by 169% between 1980 and 2020. If they continue to go in this direction, we may find ourselves without enough workers in fields that require qualifications, like medicine or law.
Could you imagine a world where school-leavers could choose their degree based on their passions and aspirations without worrying about the cost? They wouldn’t have to worry about getting a couple of jobs on the side to make it through their degrees and payment plans to pay their debt back over many years. They would have the freedom to choose their path regardless of whether their families could financially support them. Generational wealth wouldn’t be the driving force in higher education and post-graduate studies. They wouldn’t have to chase the highest marks around to qualify for a bursary while those who can afford it merely need to meet the minimum entry requirements. This may sound fantastical, but it could be the key to unlocking the breakthroughs of tomorrow.
If every individual that had a drive to find a cure for cancer was able to study biochemistry and medical physics, how much would the human race benefit? What if the person with the raw untapped potential to solve global warming could study environmental engineering and climate change science without stressing over tuition? This concept can be applied to all of the industries that are desperate for innovation. People will also be more inclined to study if it won’t financially ruin them, leading to a more educated workforce and dismantling the elitism of higher education.
While some of these factors seem like mountains now, they could fundamentally rearrange the educational dynamics of the future. Will it be challenging to implement these systems? Most likely. But will it be worth it? A thousand times over – yes.
I leave you with this question from Catherine Friday as you ponder your role in our future: “What does this moment in history demand of our education and research institutions, in order to deliver the technological, scientific and cultural advances humankind — and the planet — need for tomorrow?”
Andrade, M.S. (2018). A Responsive Higher Education Curriculum: Change and Disruptive Innovation [online]. Accessed 8 June 2022.
El-Azar, D. (2022). 4 Trends That Will Shape The Future Of Higher Education [online]. Accessed 7 June 2022.
Friday, C. (2022). Are Universities Of The Past Still The Future? [online]. Accessed 7 June 2022.
McGurran, B. and Hahn, A. (2022). College Tuition Inflation: Compare The Cost Of College Over Time [online]. Accessed 8 June 2022.
Mind Tools. (no date). Ebbinghaus's Forgetting Curve [online]. Accessed 8 June 2022.
SAVIOM. (2021). 10 Essential Soft Skills That Will Become Prominent in 2030 [online]. Accessed 7 June 2022.