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Do universities really matter in today’s world where almost all the information you need has become a free resource? Hussain Nadim contends why the entire system of university education has become a fallacy and needs a serious overhaul to survive the digital age.

he university system as we have known it for the past few centuries has collapsed. And it will take only a few more years before it becomes really obvious. However, by collapse, I do not mean that universities do not physically exist anymore. Instead, I believe that universities as institutions are failing to serve their purpose and are on fast route to complete irrelevance in digital society and economy. I back this claim with appropriate data to make the case. There are a 4 key patterns that we have to observe through data to understand why this is the case and what we must do to adjust to the change.

 

Exclusivity

First, it is important to look at the macro data on changing nature of education and learning. When they were established centuries ago, universities were the gatekeepers of knowledge, skills and human advancement. This was in part because they had exclusive libraries where books were stored, labs where experiments were conducted, and professors through which knowledge was transmitted. Universities were thus necessary institutions to impart knowledge to those lucky enough to be enrolled. All others without the opportunity or access to be at a university, were at a loss. 

When they were established centuries ago, universities were the gatekeepers of knowledge, skills and human advancement. However, with Internet and digital age, that exclusivity has remained no more

However, with Internet and digital age, that exclusivity has remained no more. In terms of learning, open access to books, journal articles, libraries, and online lectures on Youtube has changed the entire idea of education and learning. Therefore, universities do not have the monopoly on education or learning anymore. In fact, beyond providing a graduation certificate that comes at a very high cost, universities, especially in Pakistan, do not provide anything that cannot be learnt online. Hence, it is fundamentally important for universities to reimagine what the institution truly represents or how it adds value to the students to be able to survive. 

 

Aging Format

Second, there is a serious problem with the university education format. The 4-year bachelor’s degree plus 2-year master’s degree is redundant in the modern entrepreneurial world. This is because, for one, learning curves of humans have changed drastically over the decades. The abundance of information and new methods of learning that include visualization techniques have allowed an average human to be more advanced and capable in learning than previous generations. Similarly, in a world of emails, WhatsApp messages and 5G, a 4-year bachelor’s degree and a two-year master’s degree does not fit modern pace. It is slow, and out of sync with market reality making it less appealing for new generations. 

The 4-year bachelor’s degree plus 2-year master’s degree is redundant in the modern entrepreneurial world. This is because, for one, learning curves of humans have changed drastically over the decades

What needs to be changed is the entire structure where education is not only limited to a 4-year specific degree in a block, but it is a lifetime process as you go. For instance, the approach should be a maximum of 2 years of block degree that teaches the required skill sets, followed by 3-6 months of certifications every few years after that. This is because professional requirements change at different stages of the career, especially given how technology is changing work dynamics so quickly. In fact, most of the people recognize that on-job experience is way more useful and important than the entire 4 years of a bachelor’s degree. The question then is, why do we still continue with the archaic system? The answer is basic economics. Universities have become too large to change and they rely on the same system for survival. A 4-year subscription to the university is more profitable than a 2-year subscription. 

Employability

Third, and very important data to look at, is the employment rates out of college and graduate schools, which really present an abysmal state. For instance, data indicates that the current university cost does not have the same payback as it once used to. Individuals are spending a lot more on education only to find themselves without jobs or with such low paying salaries that it would take forever to make a return on university investment. Low job prospects after a degree – and a changing mindset that you no do not require a degree for financial success – is already becoming prevalent and would pose a threat to the university system. 

It is becoming an increasingly evident reality that higher education does not necessarily mean higher learning or higher chances of getting a job.

Lastly, and most importantly, the current university education in Pakistan is so archaic that it is not preparing students for the job market, entrepreneurship or even for a higher research degree. This is because there is no university-industry linkage. We are producing graduate after graduate only to place them in a master’s degree, and then PhD degrees because there are no opportunities in the job market. Since we are not producing graduates with a mindset to create job opportunities, the entire system is on the brink of collapse. Unless our education system is not linked to our industry and research needs, it is almost entirely useless to continue to produce humanities, social sciences and technical graduates in bulk every year who are irrelevant to market needs. Put simply, we need more data scientists, animators, fintech professionals than MA’s in Islamiat and political science. It is becoming an increasingly evident reality that higher education does not necessarily mean higher learning or higher chances of getting a job. The sooner university owners, management and HEC is able to recognize this and implement corrective actions, the better they will be prepared to cater to modern needs. Without a serious rethinking, we are sitting on billions of rupees worth of infrastructure that will soon become redundant and irrelevant.

 

Dr Hussain Nadim is the CEO of Nerve Analytics – a data analytics firm working in the public sector. He previously worked in the Government of Pakistan. He tweets at @HNadim8