Can There Be a Substitute for Higher Education?

Future of higher education in India

This is the third in a three-part series by Prof Ashish Kulkarni called “Understanding the Market for Higher Education”. In the first part, titled The Market for Higher Education is Not for Learning, the author talks about what makes up a market, and how you’d probably not pay the same amount of money if you didn’t get a degree at the end of your college, but just the experience of being there and learning. If that’s the case, then you’re essentially just paying for the certification, and getting to learn as an externality (on the side).

Moreover, if there is, in fact, a market for higher education in India, economic forces of demand and supply are also at play. But what’s being supplied, and more importantly, what is being demanded? What problems does learning not being the end goal for this market cause? In the second part, the author takes a deep dive into these questions. For a holistic understanding of whether solutions to these problems exist, we highly recommend reading the first and second parts before proceeding with this final piece.

What are the substitutes, what are the complements? How are these changing?

The market adjusts to changing realities. That is, in fact, one of the most important tasks of a market!

Consider Coursera: is it a substitute for higher education or a complement? I would have said, until recently, that it is a substitute. Perhaps you hold that view yourself. But consider Coursera for Campus. As they themselves say: “Coursera for Campus empowers any university to offer job-relevant, credit-ready online education to students, faculty, and staff.”

Or, put another way, Coursera is saying don’t think of us as a substitute, think of us as a complement. Coursera is in effect saying that colleges will provide the peer networks, and the certification. They step in to provide the learning. Left unsaid (to me) is the hope that eventually Coursera will either fully or at least partially supplant the faculty.

And if you ask me, why not? Universities will be able to get by with maybe half (or even lesser) of their current faculty strengths, and with a ruthless outsourcing of some, perhaps all courses to Coursera and its competitors.

The few faculty members that remain will work more as mentors and guides, rather than as faculty members exclusively. Effectively, online technology will – as with most other businesses – unbundle the college.

Will that be cheaper? Yes. Will that be better? Well, better learning, with peer networks and certifications still available to me sounds like a yes! And if it is cheaper and better, than it is just a matter of time.

Time, and a change in attitudes. Entrenched players (that’d be folks like me) will not take very kindly to the idea, and there will be lobbying and resistance. Oodles of it.

But that’s the thing with markets! They eventually get there in the end, no matter how long it takes.

So if you were to ask me: what might the future of education look like…

I’d argue that MOOC’s will not kill the college. I’d also argue that colleges will not kill MOOC’s. But automation, scaling and technology will disrupt higher education, sooner or later, and I will be out of my current job, sooner or later.

But that, if you ask me, would be A Very Good Thing! Not for me, sure, but for the world at large.

But that’s kinda the point, no?


The views expressed in this article are the author's own.

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