Dear Professor, What’s Next?

During the past few weeks I have received a number of messages from my former students and soon to be graduates asking me for my views about their future career prospects and also more generally about the future value of further and higher education. After a career of 47 years engaged in teaching and learning at Universities in both the United States, the United Kingdom, and throughout the world, I suppose they think I may have a crystal ball that may provide some vision of the future. Even if I had such a crystal ball, I am afraid, that right now it would be clouded with all of the many exogenous variables that are impacting our lives. However, their concerns have encouraged me to reflect upon a way forward and here are my views.

When I returned to the University in 1992 to earn my masters and doctoral degrees, I was motivated by my desire to help young people find gainful employment and become engaged and productive citizens. By the time I had earned my degrees (three years later), my motivation had expanded to use my newly acquired research and teaching skills to offer students the best possible educational experience I could provide.

Further and higher education today is facing inumerable threats due to the impending prospects of a no deal Brexit and also the danger of reduced enrollment due to the continuing pandemic. However, I also believe, that some of the challenges further and higher education is facing have been self inflicted due to our inability to effectively listen to and engage with our external stakeholders.

Historically, the purpose of tertiary education was to provide further opportunities for socialisation and maturity through a universe of ideas in order to improve society. In the past fifty years, this universe has sadly become a marketplace and its students have become, for better or worse, consumers.

Once I was asked by a junior faculty member if students should now be treated as customers by having staff adopt more effective customer service attitudes to satisfy their growing demands. My response was the same then as it is now. When students primarily become customers the historical contract between the teacher and student begins to erode and risks being severed entirely.

For hundreds of years, prospective students have applied for a place at a college or university. The college or university then considers this application and then may offer them a place based upon the applicants qualifications. Now, here is the critical part of the equation. It is then the responsibility of the prospective student to accept or reject this offer. If the prospective student accepts the invitation they do so with the understanding that they have agreed to join a partnership in teaching and learning.

However, the partnership is not one of equals. The student is the junior partner due to their inexperience and continuing need to engage in learning to grow and develop. Therefore, it is my view that they should abide by the standards established by their teachers and institution based upon the trust they demonstrated by accepting the invitation to further their learning.

The key part of this agreement is the seminal element of trust. If that trust is eroded or is fatally broken then the contract is weakened. During the past fifty years, as institutions of further and higher education have been subjected to greater economic challenges, they have regrettably in some cases made the paradigm shift from communal to commercial organisations that are each day threatened with extinction due to financial pressures.

The reality of the global pandemic’s requirement for social distancing may provide both institutions of further and higher education and their graduates with many positive opportunities for reflection, re – invention and a return to the historic values of teaching and learning. Here are three opportunities that I see emerging for students and their academic homes.

First, the rapid shift and embrace of virtual learning platforms may be a major enhancement of tertiary education in the future. These platforms are improving and their users, both teachers and students, are become more adept at using them to advance the cause of disseminating and gaining new knowledge. Therefore, I believe that those institutions and students who adopt and adapt to this new way of learning will become major winners in the next era of further and higher education.

Secondly, the institutions will need to re – examine their historic mission of teaching, learning and research and find innovative ways to advance this mission with fewer financial resources to support their efforts. This may mean the re – purposing of college and university buildings for more expanded usage by the local communities that they serve and finding economies of scale with delivering more services, including teaching, through electronic platforms. As these institutions demonstrate their commitment to accepting greater responsibility for sharing their valuable resources with society they may also protect and hopefully, expand the financial support that should be provided to them in the future.

Thirdly and finally, students will need to begin preparing for their future careers from their first day at college of university rather than awaiting advice from a career advisor in their final year. Students will need to begin creating a professional career portfolio where they record all of their learning and professional achievements and qualifications to share with future employers. They will also need to continually reassess where there is the greatest demand in society for their talents and then acquire the additional experience and qualifications that will satisfy that demand. Therefore, upon graduation, they will have a strong and unique platform upon which to share their unique and much in demand attributes with potential employers.

However, the historic mission of colleges and universities must be simultaneously respected and they should not become simply career development providers. They must fight with all their might to retain their right to educate the whole person and celebrate the diversity of providing a universe of ideas to promote the overall improvement of civil society through the development of educated and engaged citizens.

When I returned to the University I recall that one evening walking home and passing the library, it that was still open and heaving with students at 10pm. I peered through the basement window and saw hundreds of adults actively engaging with literature whilst deeply concentrating in order to improve their lives.

A couple of years later, when I began directing an adult education programme at the same university, I arrived at my office one morning at 7am and was surprised to meet a young woman standing upon the sidewalk. She asked me if she could enter the building early to continue her studies.

I invited her into the building and asked her why she was arriving so early and she explained that she was a single mother and this was the only time she had to study prior to preparing breakfast for her children and then reporting to her job. Her devotion, as well as those of the hundreds of students in the library, have served as my moral compass for believing that through reflection, re – invention and a return to the historic values of the academy, institutions of further and higher education and their graduates shall continue to grow from strength to strength in the future.

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