Is higher education failing to evolve into the 21st century?

Is higher education failing to evolve into the 21st century?
News sources from Australia to America are publishing grim reports that higher education is stuck in the 20th century. Source: Shutterstock

“Many universities and their faculties are lagging behind and yet charging even more money for out-of-date courses and curriculum that has not been changed in years, if not decades,” writes James Carlini of International Policy Digest.

News sources from Australia to America are publishing grim reports that higher education is stuck in the 20th century, failing to prepare graduates for the rapidly-changing, largely tech-driven workforce.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) asserts that higher education is a “systemic failure” which doesn’t equip graduates with the skills needed to solve 21st century problems.

An ABC News Australia headline declares that “higher education is failing our youth, leaving them overqualified and underemployed.”

Forbes agrees in a similarly titled article, citing an IBM survey which found that just 49 percent of academics and industry leaders believe higher education meets students’ needs. Meanwhile, 41 percent of participants felt higher education also fails to meet industry needs:

“There seems to be a growing consensus that a college degree does not provide graduates with the grounding they need to move seamlessly into the workforce.”

Forty-one percent of participants felt higher education fails to meet industry needs. Source: Daniels/Unsplash

What matters to millenials? Purpose and passion

These findings are bleak enough without considering the conclusions of a 2018 Gallup report on the role of higher education in forging pathways to purposeful work.

The survey, conducted in collaboration with Bates College, found that 80 percent of graduates consider meaningful work “important” or “extremely important”, yet less than half of them have found purpose in their careers.

A measly 26 percent of graduates reported that they like what they do every day, and just 23 percent said they were given realistic expectations of employment prospects after graduation.

This “purpose gap” has impacted every part of millennials’ lives, notably their overall wellbeing:

“Whereas only 6% of those who have low levels of purpose in their work have high levels of overall wellbeing, fully 59% of those with high purpose in work have high wellbeing.”

Fewer job prospects, unfulfilling work, crushing student loan debt, and poor mental health combine to form a recipe for disaster within the global higher education ecosystem.

No small wonder, then, that International Policy Digest (IPD) reports a “fundamental shift” away from higher education to internal learning programmes, aptly named “nanodegrees”.

This type of micro-education takes place within a corporation to train existing employees in technical and industry-related subjects. Nanodegrees are considered more relevant, accessible and cost-effective – and IPD predicts that they might replace traditional university degrees entirely.

Solving the higher education crisis

WEF simplifies the ideal solution in a way that millennials in particular can relate to: “Higher education needs its Netflix moment” – and fast.

Keeping all these findings in mind, where do we start when it comes to bringing higher education into the 21st century? Here are a few ideas proposed by various global news sources:

  • Significantly reduce the financial burden of higher education for students (ABC News Australia)
  • Improve teaching standards to reduce pressure on educators to pass students who “clearly can’t grasp the subject material” (ABC News Australia)
  • Allow lecturers to innovate by giving them the freedom to choose their own materials (WEF)
  • Maximise collaboration between lecturers and students (WEF)
  • Reward educators for “ideas that make a difference” (WEF)
  • Offer interactive digital learning platforms (WEF)
  • Combine the liberal arts skill set with the technology needed to solve 21st century problems (WEF)
  • Invest in employees by implementing internal learning initiatives (IPD)
  • Consider reinstating tuition reimbursement benefits for employees (IPD)
  • Provide more experiential education initiatives (Forbes/IBM Services)
  • Support students by gaining insight into their interests and values and offering real-world opportunities which allow them to apply those interests and values (Gallup)
  • Build on students’ reflective skills (Gallup)
  • Provide more accurate information on employment prospects after graduation (Gallup)

“Higher education needs its Netflix moment.” Source:

That’s a long to-do list for the world’s universities, and it’s one in which the WEF holds a realistic, though pessimistic, outlook: “Grand education reforms aren’t the answer…They are too slow to come, top-down and cumbersome. Instead, innovation needs to come from the ground up.”

Finding the silver lining

It’s important to remember there are two sides to every coin – and the same is true for the higher education crisis. No matter how ominous these reports may seem, there is good news amidst the doom and gloom.

Universities all over the world, from Sydney to Seattle, are revising their curricula to include 21st century subjects like virtual reality world design. Trinity College Dublin offers a postgraduate certificate in 21st century learning and teaching to equip future educators with the tools to implement these emerging educational models in the classroom.

Indeed, some universities, like Georgia Institute of Technology, have established entire departments to evolve their educational approach. Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities (C21U) is a “living laboratory” that’s “committed to leading the initiatives that will define the next generation of educational practices and technologies.”

C21U recently collaborated with Deloitte’s Center for Higher Education Excellence to produce “The Future(s) of Public Higher Education” report, which outlines five models public universities can adopt to catch up to 21st century demands.

Each approach highlights the need for increased collaboration and communication between universities, state governments and local businesses, in addition to new administrative and financial models and “an institutional culture that puts students at the center.”

The full report is well worth a read for any student, parent, academic or industry executive worried about the so-called “collapse” of higher education.

Remaking the higher education ecosystem

Although ABC News Australia rightly acknowledges, “a degree is no longer an automatic gateway to a career,” it’s unfair to paint all universities with the same brush, particularly those which have prioritised educational reform within their own institutions.

However, large-scale change is not just vital, but imminent, according to Richard DeMillo, Executive Director of Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities:

“The rapid pace of change in higher education, due in large part to shifting learner demographics, mandate a new educational model for public universities.”

DeMillo and his team have gone to great lengths to summarise these new educational models in detail – but it’s up to universities to implement them at the local level to ensure higher education remains relevant, cost-effective and attractive for disenfranchised millennials.

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