The current situation and future of teaching in Higher Education

When the rate of change inside of an institution becomes slower than the rate of change outside, the end is in sight. The only question is when. – Jack Welch, former CEO of GE

After having delivered my last lecture in June 2022, today, the 30th September 2022, is my last day as lecturer in Software Engineering at FHV and I am leaving academia for a fully-remote job as Senior Developer in the industry at Generation Lambda. I want to use this as an oportunity to reflect and discuss the current situation of teaching in higher education, which lead me to quit a “convenient” job in academia and my motivation to go back into a much more competitive environment in the industry, after having spent nine years in academia in various roles. Also, I want to deliver an idea for the future of teaching in higher eduction, where I think things are headed.

In a nutshell, the main motivation to leave, was me arriving at the conclusion that academia and the whole (higher) education system is fundamentally broken - which became particularly clear with the helpless and visionless reaction of unis during the COVID lockdowns - and that there is no reason to assume that it is going to change any time soon for the better. Therefore, to avoid getting dragged to the bottom of the ocean, I left the sinking ship. At this point in my life, being in my late 30s, I do not have the luxury to waste anymore time on a job where I would be stuck if I stayed in it for too long. Every year would count against me and from 45 onwards it would have been more or less impossible returning to the industry. This would have rendered me completely dependent on the wills and whims of management, something which I could not risk.

The current situation of teaching in higher education is roughly as follows:

As described in the excellent book The Fall of the Faculty, academia has largely been taken over by administrative management. Although the author writes from a US perspective, by now the situation is quite similar in Europe. The fundamental problem, which is the source of all the other problems discussed in the points below, is that business managers - whose field of expertise is not education and which generally have never taught - see education as an industrial production process, managed through a few KPIs. They want to be able to assess and measure the quality of teaching through a few management numbers - which is effectively impossible, given the vast differences in teaching styles, personalities as well as differences among students. Ultimately, management and leadership is organised in strict hierarchies, in a top-down management style, where the teachers, who do the hard work, located at the very bottom, have not much of a saying in either the direction or the vision of the university. Sure, there is academic freedom and representatives of teachers as well as chancelors but they are effectively powerless, with CEOs leading the university as a company, directing in a centralised way the overall direction.

The incentive structure of the higher education system is fundamentally broken for teachers - for researchers there is still the reward of getting citations, but the number of citations is a hollow metric and shall not be discussed here.

Generally, the salary paid in academia is low compared to the industry - especially in the field of Computer Science. On top of that it is also generally not possible to negotiate the entry salary. Also it is not possible to get a payrise based on your performance - something which is normal in the industry, is impossible in the field of academia. Instead, in academia your salary automatically increases every few years, so younger, possibly highly qualified teachers, straight from the industry end up earning substantially less (50-70%) than their older colleagues who existed in this system for, say, 2 decades.

Inflexible working times are another issue of teaching. Depending on which classes you teach, means you are in it for late evening hours and possibly also for Saturdays - which is not very family friendly. It is important to note that teachers in academia do not enjoy similar vacation time as school teachers: they are entitled to 5 weeks of holiday. Given that you will most likely spend 2 weeks on the christmas period you are left with 3 weeks for the summer. If you are also doing research appart from teaching, then you are in a bad position: over the summer time where there are no lectures, you need to focus on getting research done as well as writing new grant proposals - so there is not really time to recover from a stressful and intense semester.

All this means bad news for young, motivated, highly qualified teachers: they don’t get any perspective to raise up in the ranks and will stay teaching slaves forever, potentially burning out a few times during their time at uni. On top of that it is quite often the case that young teachers take over a lecture, prepare it from scratch, just so that it is taken from them after 1 or 2 years due to management policies (read: outsourcing to external teachers) - this creates a lot of frustration over wasted effort and loss of identification with work one has done.

A consequence of the high teaching load is that it is nearly impossible to stay up-to-date even within a core discipline, let’s say Software Engineering. The question obviously is: what does it mean to stay up to date? For a Software Engineering teacher it simply means to follow the industry best practices and developments (academic research about Software Engineering is largely ignored and irrelevant in industry). This can only be done in a sustainable way by actually working on industry-level projects. Doing pet-/toy-/student-projects is not nearly sufficient to develop industry skills/to keep them up-do-date due to a very different set of constraints (mostly time and quality as well as production hardening). As a consequence the novelty of teaching content is inevitably declining over time.

A Vision for the Future of Higher Education ¶

It seems that this situation is not going to change any time soon for multiple reasons. The most important one is that the education system has a de-facto monopoly: there are simply no compelling alternatives, which provide you with a certificate (read: degree) which awards you the entry to the industry. Note the irony here: you are going through an education system which has itself largerly detached from the real-world and industry just to get an entry ticket to the industry, which ultimately does not care much about the degrees anyway…

However, I think the situation is not as desperate as it currently seems - what we are experiencing is just a system which is inevitably dying and is desperately fighting to survive. I believe the inevitable death blow is not far down the road - the thing which I expect to bring a fundamental, transformative change to higher eduction is what we have already seen during Corona: Digital Transformation, but to a much, much deeper extent possibly through future technology catalysts like Web 3.0 and/or the Metaverse.

I certainly do not want to discuss what Web 3.0 or the Metaverse actually are (no one knows…), just let’s assume that in the near future we might have the possibility of a certain kind of virtual world where we can freely move in - aka the Cyberspace of the Cyberpunk genre, Virtual Reality like in Ready Player One or the Matrix. With such a transformation in mind I can clearly envision and see a new kind of education system in the near future of, say, 10-15 years, which has either put unis out of business or transformed them fundamentally and gave a lot of power and the purpose back to the teachers:

Imagine state-defined curriculas where students freely choose for each course which licensed lecturer they take the course from. Lecturers work as independent freelancers for themselves not for a University. Students have the freedom to pick the most interesting and best teachers. The quality of a students education would not be measured anymore by University names but by the names of lecturers they took classes from.

  • Lecturers would teach their courses in the Metaverse/Cyberspace/Virtual Reality. We saw that online teaching during Corona didn’t really work, because the medium we used to deliver the lectures was too narrow, but it might be the case that the Metaverse actually turns out to deliver on its promises, being a great medium for teaching.
  • Connecting students and teachers should not be a big issue and too difficult. We have seen in recent years the rise of myriads of platforms connecting people offering various services, which can also be rated. This is an achievement of Web 2.0 and we can leverage it directly for the future.
  • A fundamental question is obviously who is paying for the education. There are two options here: first, students pay all themselves e.g. 50€ per ECTS, which creates an incentive for them to work hard. However I have seen during my time in the UK that this works exactly the other way round: the quality is not increasing, but decreasing because students have now a much higher leverage because they pay for education and complaints have much more weight. So there is the second option: fully state-funded. Given that Unis are either put out of business or completely transformed, the state does not have to subsidise them anymore, saving millions, which can directly be funneled back to students.
  • A very fundamental problem, which has not been solved by the current system is how to create meaningful and useful ratings of teachers. Just asking students is only a minor facet of the whole picture. In the end a Software Engineering teachers value must be measured by how valuable a computer scientist in the industry is, therefore an employer could write a letter of recommendation for a teacher if they are satisfied with skills a new employee learned from a lecturer. This is also not a perfect metric, but it goes in the right direction and is much more meaningful than “number of graduates”.
  • If Universities go out of business, then what happens to research? This shouldn’t be a big deal as well: there are already quite a large number of research companies - the state could go on funding them. Or Unis have transformed into research-first hubs, offering their researchers also the opportunity to teach their findings (which would bring us back to the original idea of Unis).

I am very well aware that it is unclear whether such a transformation changes everything for the better, and I doubt it will - as it is usual the case, things are much more nuanced and do not have just positive or negative consequences. The above picture is just one of many, many possibilities - how exactly it is going to turn out obviously no one knows. This means that ultimately I doubt the exact outcome of my vision but I am confident enough, that I think that it will contain parts of it.

In whatever way the change is going to turn out, I believe that the higher education system will inevitably see fundamental, transformative changes, which will come from the digital transformation, whether it will be from a Metaverse-like technology or from something entirely else. The higher education system is in its last days, it has to die to make way for something new - change is inevitable, the only question is when.