When I visited Chicago in 2014 to find out how its community college system worked, I was initially shocked to learn that just 7 per cent of students stay at the same college for the entirety of their qualification. But those numbers made more sense once it was explained that most students take different modules at different colleges because all credits are directly compatible and transferable.
In future, the whole higher education ecosystem will surely resemble Chicago’s.
That prediction has been made before, but the reappraisal of higher education sparked by the Covid crisis means radical change is now more likely. Students have seen how education can be obtained at a distance, and while many will still happily spend three years of their lives studying in person at a specific institution, a significant proportion will forgo the university “experience” to study from home and potentially be in employment at the same time.
That option will be particularly attractive if they can build up credits over a longer time frame that suits their financial or personal circumstances, and if they can pick and mix courses and modules from around the world to build their own genuinely individual degree.
A student with a passion for the stars, for instance, might want to study a course or two at the University of Leicester’s renowned Space Research Centre, then undertake other modules at the University of the West of England’s prestigious robotics laboratory and throw in some quantum computing from the University of Surrey – or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Different institutions have different strengths, and those specialisms will be vital to forming brands that will prosper in a world where competition has been thrown wide open.
Critics will say that students would be bewildered by the choices on offer, but if it is possible to create the enormous searchable databases upon which giant data sites like Amazon function, a workable system shouldn’t be beyond the wit of man. This is the reverse of the “bums on seats” framework that currently exists. Rather than competing for numbers through the door, universities would thrive on the basis of the quality of the options they offer. This will surely drive up standards and allow those universities currently least fashionable to compete for their intake on the basis of the education they offer rather than the size of their sports centres or the fame of the bands they book.
There would be risks, of course. Some courses might very quickly become so popular as to become unwieldy. But there will be various ways to mitigate this. Universities will still have the right to admit, or not, the students who apply to them. The most popular courses will demand the highest standards for entry, as they do now. But some could undoubtedly be open to larger numbers if, for example, algorithms could be created for marking large numbers of assignments and exams.
Conversely, you might fear that some less popular courses will be endangered in a genuinely global online market, stripping universities down to only their most marketable departments. However, a comprehensive, transferable credit system need not reduce the breadth of education an institution could offer; quite the reverse, in fact. Making modules available to a global market in this way could lead to expansion rather than some course-survivalist nightmare.
The real problem is compatibility. We currently lack a simple and transparent system like Chicago’s that allows students to easily see what credits they need to build their own qualification. A quick visit to the University of Arizona’s vast, global guide to transfer credits is illuminating and obfuscating in equal measure. Four credits from the University of Passo Fundo in Brazil are worth three from Arizona. Three from Cyprus International University are worth 2.55 from Arizona while 15 from the University of Aberdeen are worth 3.75 in Arizona. This is not a system: it’s an impenetrable cypher worthy of analysis by the codebreakers at Bletchley Park.
So a crucial prerequisite to fully harnessing the power of digital higher education will be an internationally recognised body to determine the relative value of modules undertaken at institutions worldwide – as well as, potentially, to be the degree-awarding body for composite qualifications gathered from different universities.
It won’t be easy, but we will and must get there. As educationalists, surely we should aspire to a world where the broadest conceivable range of learning opportunities are as widely available as possible to the largest number of people. That is what you might call true academic freedom.
Nick Isles is chief executive officer of Conde Nast College of Fashion & Design, London.