Definition of higher education has been going through a series of incremental and radical changes, over the last few decades. The meaning that higher education traditionally brings to our mind is \'education at universities or similar educational establishments, especially to degree level.\' It inherently implies that location of higher education, or the facility, is within physical boundaries of universities, and other educational establishments.
Although recorded evidence of distance education, as a means of higher education, has been in place since 1840s, through physical mails initiated by Sir Isaac Pitman; formats of which eventually was formalized first within university education system in the University of London (University College of London) in 1858; it never, so far, has been the mainstream of higher education. The 20th century witnessed an emergence of correspondence courses, to address needs of students from distance remote or rural parts, or those working; and with subsequent advent of radio and television; channels of dissipation of higher education through communication technologies began.
In the 21st century now, we see the beginning of a rapid possible disruption of higher education, from the access point of view, including costs and thereby affordability and flexibility. In this ubiquitous world with Internet and mobile access devices, education is, by no means, confined within physical boundaries of academic establishments.
First, a look at the costs of higher education makes many wonder whether it is justified, when higher education is purely viewed as an economic cost-benefit decision. Economic prospects and employment opportunities have made people question, not only in the United States of America where Gross Enrollment Ratio of higher education is as high as nearly 80 percent; but also in developing countries like China with more than 30 percent enrollment or in India with as low enrollment as around 20 percent. In China, as BBC reported, the number of Gaokao test takers in 2012, at 9.15 million, was lower by more than a million than that of 2008. In India, jobless growth over the last decade, combined with economic slowdowns has resulted in many of the colleges operating at 20 percent of their approved capacity, and few have been closing down too.
As Victor Hugo observed, \'Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come\'; higher education is facing that moment of reckoning today. Starting with computational technologies, Internet, penetration of handheld devices and with open access of knowledge within formal education system, from MIT\'s OCW to recent MOOCs; higher education is ready for disruption. The inflection point not only addresses costs, access, flexibility; but also quality. MOOCs have seen registration of hundreds of thousands from around the world, at unbelievable low costs compared to equivalent full-time programs, that accommodates mere hundreds. MOOCs surely have the promise to address the critical quality issue that vast majority in the developing world, like India, with young-age population comparable to the entire developed world and China faces, at a cost that Indian students too can afford.
Education has always been a continuous, life-long process. But in present information age, with generation of knowledge in each year accelerating, and being equivalent to decades, or centuries of knowledge created in the past; duration of education again is not confined to the period one spends with an educational institute, even within the physical boundaries of academic institute.
Objectives of higher education are therefore getting redefined, and it no longer is time or location bound. There is tell-tale signs that campus-based full-time enrollment in higher education has already hit its glass-ceilings.
Though the winds of change blow the higher education sector, and it is desired too; one may also have a counter-hypothesis that the change in full-time campus-based residential courses may not face huge drops in near future. Even when a single parent, more so when both parents had the opportunity to be part of higher education in the traditional set-up, parents would always insist same opportunities for their sons and daughters.
Objective of higher education surely is employment, having proportionate economic return to the costs; but the bigger objective of higher education, irrespective of the field of study, is to develop spacious thinking in our younger generations. This goes beyond the necessary objective of developing the ability to find, interpret and use information available now anytime, anywhere at a click of a button, as Lawrence Summers put it; where a leisurely learning environment helps to develop that spacious thinking in an otherwise fast-paced volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world.
About the Author
Prof. Ranjit Goswami is Dean (Academics), and Officiating Director of Institute of Management Technology (IMT), Nagpur. He is currently a Professor in Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), Operations Management & General Management with more than 8 years academic experience and 11 years of industry experience. He also has completed his Ph. D (Management) from Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur on the topic Internet Applications, Drivers and Impact on Society.