Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Higher Education: 'Unbundle' or Not?

There is some sort of consensus that Higher Education needs to change, but the shape of it is hotly contested. One key idea that has got some traction is that some sort of unbundling is both inevitable and desirable. This model of 3- or 4-year Undergraduate degrees, focused on one or few disciplines, is too costly and too closed for our time. Unbundling, which rests on recognition of various ways of earning college credit, through various channels and activities, would reduce the costs and allow the students flexibility in terms of time and location to complete their degrees. All sorts of experimentation has followed: From the launch of college credit bearing (as well as non-credit) MOOCs to variation of the structure of college degrees, including shortening of the time required, have got under way. 

But, it has also gone the other way, as Chris Mayer argued (see the article here). The Higher Education community in general, accepting that a transformation is necessary, is arguing for 'bundling', a more holistic approach to education away from the disciplinary fragmentation that has come to be over the last half century (or possibly longer). 

While 'Unbundling' may reduce costs and increase flexibility, and is perhaps more aligned to the employers' ever-changing requirements, the arguments for 'bundling' can be traced back to Aristotle: "There is no royal road to education!", as he told young Alexander. While 'unbundling' treats students as consumers and give them choice, the opposite approach emphasises that softer abilities and behavioural change, key to successful careers, need holistic engagement over longer periods.

So, the debate is framed like this: One view holds that Higher Education is a black box that needs to be prised open, and the other says our approach to knowledge has become too fragmented along disciplinary lines, and a more integrated approach, focused around the student, would be needed to set things right. 

While this may look like a sharp division and one could start drawing lines along public versus private in this debate, it is not going to be straightforward. The public policy of dividing education and skills have gone on for too long, and this is one of the key aspects of the 'bundling' argument: That an education must prepare the student for an economically productive life. That Higher Ed would eventually be unbundled is the assumption behind numerous Ed-Tech start-ups, some are already finding out the challenges of fragmentation, huge transaction costs that may occur in the handover stages, the culture conflicts between various parties involved in delivering a solution and various problems that arise when the students start playing the role of a consumer a little too seriously.

In the end, Higher Education may be transformed not into one model or other, but in multiple forms. This is a transformation like no other - the acceptance that there are more than one correct way of educating - a big departure from the state-backed monolithic idea that we have come to believe in. In fact, this debate, which encompass both the process and purpose of education, highlights, even if in a roundabout way, the unity of engagements. This, in itself, goes a long way to overcome the false divides, between skills and education, between practice and theory, between contemplation and action, and indeed between different disciplinary labels, which came into existence owing to dated social conventions or bureaucratic convenience. The very existence of this debate puts the student at the centre-stage of education, which can not be a bad thing.





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