A talk with the author: Michaela Martin on the seismic changes confronting higher education

05 March 2020


Photo by Mikael Kristenson on Unsplash

Higher education is undergoing major changes worldwide. The sheer number of students is rapidly proliferating, from 100 million in 2000 to over 220 million in 2017. By 2040, students enrolled in higher education globally are predicted to surpass 590 million. Student demographics are a more diverse than ever, with many more first generation students, part-time learners, international students, and working professionals now featured alongside the traditional college student. More programmes are also on offer now, and the technological disruption – common to many industries – has radically changed where and when students learn. We sat down with IIEP’s higher education expert, Michaela Martin, to discuss why flexibility is gaining traction on campuses worldwide.  

What will higher education look like in say 20 years?

More students, more diversity, and more options. By 2040, the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution will be well underway. For higher education, this will mean more technology based opportunities to respond to increased demand for lifelong and student-driven learning. In order to allow learners to navigate through different types of provisions with greater ease, higher education institutions would work in a more integrated fashion, allowing students to access higher education through alternative entry modes and to transfer more easily across programmes, disciplines, and higher education institutions.

Will we still see the traditional college student?

We will, but the traditional college student will be just one type among many other student profiles. There will be an increase in students, overall, and in the offers available that respond to their varying needs. There will also be greater flexibility both in terms of place (delivery mode), pace and teaching methodologies. In the classroom, we’ll continue to see a shift from traditional lecturing to more work-based approaches and experiential learning that use case studies and problem solving techniques and exercises. Students will be able to obtain a credential over time, including through an increased use of recognition of prior learning. There will be also an increased use of micro-badges and micro-credentials. Learners could be able to pursue and space out short courses, which would add up overtime to become credentials that allow them to advance in their career.  

What are the global benefits to this greater flexibility?

For students, flexible learning pathways would lead to more opportunities to fit their circumstances and needs. For working professionals, there would be more opportunities to re-enter higher education to update their knowledge and skills. For the labour market, there would be more people with the right skillset and for society there will be opportunities for greater equity. There are no dead ends in higher education when you have a flexible learning provision. Various entry points are opened and you enable traditionally disadvantaged students who often concentrate in segments of higher education that are of lower prestige (e.g. higher Technical and Vocational Education and Training courses or short cycle higher education) to advance upwards and gain traditional academic credentials at advanced levels.

Are institutions keeping pace with the demand for flexible learning?

For the time being, not enough, and institutions face quite a number of obstacles. In many developing countries where the number of traditional students is expanding rapidly, the emphasis is currently on ensuring access for them rather than non-traditional students.  Another issue is the fragmentation of governance structures in higher education, which leads to lack of coordination between different ministries. And this works against greater flexibility. Also, recent governance reforms have favoured competition rather than collaboration among institutions. There are also profound differences in institutional cultures, for example between vocational education and universities, which can often be quite conservative when it comes to the provision of alternative access and opportunities for transfer.

What can policy-makers and planners do?

Planners and policy-makers can create an enabling environment for flexible learning through strong administrative capacity, coordination, and by involving many actors, from government down to the labour unions and students. Guidance systems for students also need to be in place so that students can find the most suitable programme for them in a diversified offer. Our new Working Paper also shares country experiences that illustrate why policy frameworks must be coherent and avoid having contradictory goals. An important policy lever is the coherence of National Qualifications Frameworks with Quality Assurance systems that should support nationally agreed learning outcomes, which in turn facilitate recognition and flexibility. The Working Paper also revealed the gap in research on what impact flexible learning has on student outcomes and its effect on equity in higher education, both of which are the focus of our international survey and a series of in-depth case studies from Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.

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