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Higher education — challenges, changes, and the future

Updated: Aug 11, 2020

Just like every other aspect of our lives, education too has undergone a transformation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it would be inaccurate to believe that the virus was the only factor behind this transformation. It, in fact, provided a push to some long overdue changes in academics, especially at the graduate level. Some of the challenges that need innovation for redress were:

  • Changes in return on investment:

While in the US, those with a tertiary education earn up to 75% more than what they would have without the degree, the cost of the degree itself has skyrocketed to 13 times more than it was 40 years ago. Around the world, the number is even more staggering. The cost of higher education degrees has gone up by 1000%, and when accompanied by the rising cost of food and housing, results in an ROI that may not be quite as beneficial.

  • Reduced government spending:

Reduction in public funds for education means higher fees for students, many of whom come from underprivileged backgrounds. Take a look at these figures — in the US, the government spent 16% less on each student in 2018, as compared to 2008. The cuts have meant that universities are favoring foreign students who pay more, putting domestic ones at a disadvantage. And now, given COVID-19 travel restrictions, these institutions are also forgoing the large amount of funding that comes from international students.

  • Mismatch between skills and jobs:

In addition to the rising costs, the huge gap between institutional learning and market skills is another worry for students. Theory and practice often do not come together, and in certain fields such as computer science, many current university courses are projected to be outdated as soon as the end of this year.

These challenges have been around long before COVID came along, and certain distinct trends are now emerging in response. Let’s take a look:

  • Online learning

In the last 15 years, online course enrollment has more than quadrupled in the United States — and now, due to the pandemic, the rest of the world is following suit. America’s early adoption comes as no surprise though, since online education comes with the benefits of reduced costs and increased flexibility. Take the example of University of Pennsylvania that is offering an IT course at one third of the on-campus cost.

  • Online Program Managers (OPM)

As a natural result of the previous point, traditional universities are now going digital with Online Program Managers (OPM). OPMs help universities build and maintain their online degree programs and also come up with innovations for non-traditional students. In this revenue-sharing model, universities are tasked with providing the content and the OPMs take it online and market the move.

  • Competency-based education (CBE)

Students who have gained relevant subject knowledge through certain work and life experiences are allowed to appear for tests and gain credit without having to attend classes. These programs are goal-oriented, self-paced, and less expensive than their traditional counterparts.

  • Income Share Agreements (ISA)

Thousands of students rely on loans to fund their education — and many struggle to repay them. In order to relieve this considerable stress, governments in various countries have come up with an arrangement known as Income Share Agreements. For instance, under Australia’s ISAs, students start repaying the loan only after they secure a source of income or meet certain income levels.

  • Pathway Programs

Even the brightest of international students often do not secure admission to universities overseas since they remain unfamiliar with their academic standards. This is where pathway programs come in. Companies that offer these assist students with the admission process and work with universities under a revenue-sharing model. While most of these programs are in countries that are traditionally popular with foreign students, they are also coming up in countries such as China, that traditionally send a large number of students to other countries.

Only time will tell how these trends affect traditional education systems — but they are definitely here to stay! With the current global pandemic pushing higher education out of its comfort zone, may not be long till we witness a complete and enduring transformation!



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