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The Global Challenge of Scaling Up Higher Education

The Global Challenge of Scaling Up Higher Education

From The Chronicle, by Nigel Thrift, March 26, 2013

Colleges need vast overhauls to meet the growing demands for education in places like India, says Nigel Thrift.


Engineering students outside the Mumbai office of the All India Council for Technical Education in August 2012.

A recent trip to India I took underlined the challenge that higher education faces worldwide. It must change what it does and how it does it to meet the growing demand. In India, for example, one estimate is that 500 million people will need training in vocational skills by 2022 and 40 million will need a university education by 2020. The consequences of these kinds of numbers for colleges and universities—not only in India but elsewhere, too—are still only being thought through.

I can think of five consequences.

First, higher education will have to become even more involved in secondary and adult education. Given the scale of the problem, there is no real alternative. Of course, universities have been doing this for many years, and the tempo has picked up recently in many countries. But the imperative will surely become even more urgent as the process of education becomes broader and takes in the full span of a career. More links with community colleges, new kinds of technical colleges, and other institutional innovations will be just the start.

Second, we will have to think again about qualifications. For example, the University of Delhi is now granting a kind of credit to tiffin wallahs—people who carry freshly made food in lunch boxes to office workers—on the basis that their job undoubtedly requires  calculating skills. Other institutions are thinking about the possibility of producing global qualifications that are able to apply to many constituencies with suitable modifications.

Third, we will have to work through distance learning—yet again. MOOCs, and especially the recent news concerning legislation in California to link them in with the public education system, are no doubt just the start. But you could argue that at present the massive open online courses are not even very interesting as pedagogical devices, utilizing models of screen transmission that belong to the old television age. But they will no doubt evolve as part of a general tendency toward more encompassing digital experiences that use a range of senses.

Fourth, we will have to do much more interesting things. The University of Delhi now runs a train around India taking its education offerings on a journey, quite literally. But the electronic frontier is changing, too, especially through the use of mobile phones. In India, for example, apps are being produced by the British Council that can teach skills and English simultaneously. In another venture, Vodafone and Pearson have combined forces to produce a means of enabling group teaching using mobile phones.

Fifth, we will have to involve our undergraduates much more fully in teaching their counterparts in other parts of the world. At the University of Warwick, we have started this process through a philanthropic program called Warwick in Africa. This program is aimed at teaching mathematics to secondary-level children in Africa using the skills and enthusiasm of our mathematics undergraduates: In each class, there will be two or three great mathematicians just waiting for the stimulus and material to allow them to take off. So extraordinarily successful has this been that the program has started to add undergraduates from other universities, like the National University of Singapore.

Whatever happens, as I have noted in other blogs, we will see an industrialization of higher education in many parts of the world. Like all industrial revolutions, it will have its good and bad sides, but it will happen, of that I am quite sure. A few highly resourced higher-education institutions will carry on in their own Olympian way, but most will be affected to some degree (and even the Olympian institutions will have to think about whether they really are doing enough, given the level of need). What a university will be under these new conditions is an open question, but it is one that, contrary to the doomsayers, we can have considerable influence over at this point since so little has been fixed.

Better get ready.


About judithcoe

I am a retired music professor emerita, faculty development champion, SoTL practitioner mentor and trainer, technology geek, fulbright alum, cultural ambassador, digital explorer, artist, and observer with a passion for Irish land- and seascapes, music and literature, Blasket Island people and culture, and the sea.


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