Learning in the 21st Century (Part Four)

Throughout this series, I have been focusing on the learner and the learning experience and trying to reconcile the difficult environment that educational institutions are facing with the cultural habits and aptitudes of students now deeply versed in the worlds of technology and digital culture.

Now, I would like to turn more directly to the institutions themselves because a great deal has also changed both within the structure of institutions and how they meet their missions and goals.

 A review of public financing of education in Canada in the year 2000 found that, “Public funding for post-secondary education, measured on a per capita and constant dollar basis, is 14% below the levels of 1991/92 nation-wide.” Canadian Parliamentary Review, Vol. 23, # 4

Today, most Canadian universities receive less than 50% of their base funding from government sources.

I mention these statistics because the reductions are not a visible part of public policy or public awareness. Some universities have reacted to the cuts by becoming both more efficient and entrepreneurial. Others have increased the international students they take in to generate more revenue and some have cut back in programs, services and numbers of students. Still others have increased their emphasis on research in order to generate more revenue.

Nonetheless, passion, dedication and a deep concern for the future of our young students have kept most universities going. A few of the major universities suck up most of the donations and most of the operating funds provided by provincial governments and as a result are in generally excellent condition. The rest in a colloquial sense, ‘truck along’ trying to make sense of increased demand balanced against less and less money to hire teachers and even less money to provide some of the most important services from libraries to counseling.

These issues are viewed as challenges by many of us on the frontlines of post-secondary education, but they portend some very negative trends that by 2020 will see very little money coming from the public sector to support universities and colleges in Canada. The most recent example of this direction is in England where cuts as high as 87% will not only make institutions raise their student fees but also cut back on the academic diversity of their programs.

So, we have two converging trends that will see students and their families paying considerably more for their education and fewer programs available for those who can afford to come to university.

One of the most important and cherished traditions within the university sector that is also a historical indicator of a society’s health is our ability and willingness as a community to provide diverse groups of students with as much curriculum choice as possible. In a desperate attempt to justify ever decreasing grants to universities and colleges, governments are increasingly relying on labour market data as key indicators of the effectiveness of the teaching and learning environment. These data inevitably privilege professional programs over the humanities and the social sciences. The areas of greatest contraction in the future will necessarily be in those “soft” disciplines, ranging from the study of literature to the study of history and politics.

Yet, if you were to take a snapshot of the working public you would find that most people were not actually “trained” for the jobs that they are in. There are too many variables from talent to personal ability and from personality to economic conditions (which are changing all of the time) to lock the learning process into a linear and overly constrained outcomes process.

Imagine a situation where you have no social scientists to model learning experiences and relate those to employment trends. I wonder how many people could have anticipated the learning needed to start a Google or manage a company like Apple? Learning has never been a linear process and even at its most limited, learning is about opening the mind to the many rich and engaging elements that make us civilized and citizens.

There are so many variables to the process of learning that universities diversified their curricula during the 20th century as a way of creating pedagogically rich environments that would allow students to find their own strengths and then to translate those strengths when they graduated.

As the core of most institutions weakens under the twin assaults of decreasing money and increasing demand for more curricula and services, this diversity so crucial to the knowledge economy will decrease. Students will increasingly demand professional programs understandably because they seem like tickets to jobs.

The irony is that anticipating the job market is very difficult. Predicting where a student who has studied will end up is just as difficult. That is, unless we return to the 17th century model where all learning was controlled by guilds and where the skills students acquired were directed towards very specific crafts.

Modern educational policy is simultaneously locked into the past while desperately searching for ways of predicting the future. Neither approach will work as the next part of this series will try and demonstrate.