Better education at higher cost, or same education at lower cost?

Clay Shirky writes, that we are at an important inflection point as far as higher education is concerned, and we should get used to the fact that major changes will be forced upon us whether we like them or not.

While he is talking about higher education in the US, some of his thoughts would be relevant to India too.

The main point he’s making (regarding higher education in the US) is that the middle-to-late 20th century was the golden age of higher education – the various governments funded/subsidized education to a very large extent, for a variety of reasons. This led to the creation of a system with good quality education, but very high costs. Over time, the amount of funding from the government has reduced, and the costs have been passed on to the students in terms of higher fees.

This is not a sustainable situation. In the modern world, higher education is becoming necessary, and the costs are too high for most people. Specifically, higher education is failing most people – they are getting no, or sub-standard education because of the lack of affordable quality institutions.

How can this be fixed?

One obvious way to improve life for the new student majority is to raise the quality of the education without raising the price. This is clearly the ideal, whose principal obstacle is not conceptual but practical: no one knows how. The value of our core product—the Bachelor’s degree—has fallen in every year since 2000, while tuition continues to increase faster than inflation.

The other way to help these students would be to dramatically reduce the price or time required to get an education of acceptable quality (and for acceptable read “enabling the student to get a better job”, their commonest goal.) This is a worse option in every respect except one, which is that it may be possible.

The first option, increasing quality without increasing the price, can only happen if governments starts increasing funding for education again. But, that is unlikely to happen, he argues:

If we can’t keep raising costs for students (we can’t) and if no one is coming to save us (they aren’t), then the only remaining way to help these students is to make a cheaper version of higher education for the new student majority.

The number of high-school graduates underserved or unserved by higher education today dwarfs the number of people for whom that system works well. The reason to bet on the spread of large-scale low-cost education isn’t the increased supply of new technologies. It’s the massive demand for education, which our existing institutions are increasingly unable to handle. That demand will go somewhere.

Those of us in the traditional academy could have a hand in shaping that future, but doing so will require us to relax our obsessive focus on elite students, institutions, and faculty. It will require us to stop regarding ourselves as irreplaceable occupiers of sacred roles, and start regarding ourselves as people who do several jobs society needs done, only one of which is creating new knowledge.

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The key takeaway for me is that we should stop expecting the system (i.e. government) to come in and fix the system. Instead, we should accept the fact that the goal has changed. Instead of focusing on trying to increase the number of people to whom we can provide very high quality education, we should probably focus on reducing the cost at which we can provide some acceptable quality of education to large masses.

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