24th December 2021
I am writing this piece in response to an article published on the 17th of December 2021 in The Conversation; COVID has changed students’ needs and expectations. How do universities respond? As a currently enrolled student, I’ve had the privilege to experience universities in a pre-covid setting and felt inspired to respond with some key points addressed in this article.
From my experience, the article correctly identifies many of the challenges universities faces but fall short by pivoting around the underlying problem instead of addressing the elephant in the room. For me, the title states a contention that speaks a false narrative of student expectation around flexibility and anxiety. I’ve structured my argument over four main points.
- Assuming Student Expectations
It is slightly patronising to assume domestic undergraduates know what to expect from a university experience. Up to this point, the vast majority just left high school, a structured and contained environment with a set curriculum. Going to university will be a new experience for many of them, and most will not have any prior experience to calibrate their university expectations to.
The truth is most would be none the wiser when their experience falls short of what they are supposed to be getting. Just because students are not aware doesn’t make it less shameful to take advantage of their naivety.
- Student demand for flexibility pre-dates COVID
This demand is not a nuanced mindset developed due to COVID. Students had always sorted classes into fewer days, leaving ‘days off’ for other commitments. Lecture recordings were taken as a compromise to make up for weekly timetable clashes.
So the short answer to: “But could we use technology to build timetables that cluster classes over fewer days to reduce students’ total travel time?” is, students have already done this by ourselves for decades!
Students have always complained about inflexible timetables, and to my knowledge, the technology used to generate timetables haven’t changed in over a decade.
These concerns fell on deaf ears because it was not in anyone’s interest (whatever that may be) to recognise this expectation until now.
- The current direction of universities
The rationale and necessity to introduce micro-credentialling is an indictment of what our degrees have become. It seems we are regressing to ideas like micro-credentialing as if people were operating systems reminiscent of the 90s that require regular systems updates to remain relevant.
I am continuously perplexed by the hype behind artificial intelligence and machine learning. How are we more invested in making machines think independently, but that same enthusiasm does not apply to people?
- Coping with a changing world
Anxiety among students is symptomatic of the failings in our education system. Students feel unqualified and unprepared because they were taught facts and technical skills but not ‘how to think’. Universities should be developing critical thinking skills in their students and empowering them to face the challenges of tomorrow. Instead, they deliver education easily found on the internet.
Today, online education platforms like Skillshare and Udemy deliver knowledge similar to online lectures without a formal qualification upon completion. The distinguishing feature the universities has over these educational platforms is ‘an interactive and unique learning experience’.
The online and blended model exposes what a university degree is slowly becoming: ‘a lavish online streaming service and a piece of paper as your prize’. It makes a ‘formal qualification’ tokenistic, because anyone with internet can excess the same information. Thus it is feasible to develop the same skills as a graduate without incurring a student debt.
Maybe the real question is: How will universities bring more value than the abovementioned alternatives, and can they continue to devalue the one feature that can distinguish them?
“What about industry internships?“, you may ask?
Let’s assume every degree offers an industry internship opportunity. Internship experience will becomes a new normal; employers will raise the bar on ‘experience’ for applicants and graduates will continue to struggle with distinguishing themselves from each other. What would we have actually achieved here?
Perhaps the most concerning of all with these internships is the vulnerability to industry exploitation. Industry-based internships offer a continuous production line of casual workers with potentially dubious employment arrangements. It is unclear whether this new workforce of interns will be entitled to superannuation, workcover or any other workers’ rights.
Furthermore, employers have no obligation to hire a graduate after an internship and may instead take on a new intern to continue the work. Not only could internships be exploited as a cheap labour force, it can have competing interests with creating new entry-level graduate positions. Instead this makes fresh graduates less employable in the long run?
The solution is made to sound complicated, but it really isn’t. Universities need to be funded adequately, and management must prioritise education before the dollar. Reforms to higher education have mostly been regressive and working towards an unsustainable system. The ‘need to change how we deliver education’ is not motivated by the needs of students; it’s shifting goal posts to maintain a profitable enterprise.