Over the course of our lives, we will experience a radical transformation in the sector of higher education. Universities will inevitably change because they no longer satisfy their basic goal: to prepare young people for a gratifying and enriching life.
While this mission has changed over time, the main idea has stayed the same: create an environment in which students can engage with, criticize, and try to better understand the world around them. The intrinsic utility of this goal has been to disseminate these ideas amongst all the members of our communities. This process of sharing happens equally whether students decide to pursue a life in the professional, public, or spiritual worlds once they graduate.
However, recently this mission has been diluted, ignored, and effectively forgotten. Prestigious universities, especially in the US, have become hedge funds, with some managing portfolios valued at over $30b thanks to high tuition costs and generous alumni donations. Similarly, we are seeing a considerable increase in the number of private universities, whose main goal is to generate profitability for their shareholders instead of creating social value through its academics. It has never been easier to take advantage of economies of scale in the sector of higher learning, if we consider the fact that professors can teach classes online, minimizing the marginal cost of accepting new students while maximizing the opportunities to charge them for services.
As with any business, these universities are only sustainable financially when they offer their product at a price that the market considers acceptable, which suggests that there is a demand for more university-level courses. There are various theories to explain this obsession with higher education, such as the rising levels of unemployment in many countries after the global financial crash of 2008 or simply the cultural capital that comes with another diploma.
While it is impossible to know exactly why there is so much interest in university degrees, what we can measure is the ultimate result of this push for education. In the UK, young people have never been as educated as they are today: 47% of school leavers continue their studies upon graduation, according to the country’s Office for National Statistics. Nevertheless, this higher rate of qualified students does not translate to the working world: the ONS also notes that 31% of university graduates are underemployed—taking jobs that do not require their degree. This over-qualification is even more significant in certain demographic sectors, in particular for black British graduates, of which only 37% have employment that is on par with their level of studies. It seems that the only thing a recent graduate can be sure of is that they will enter the working world in the red.
Despite the negative picture these numbers paint, there is light at the end of the tunnel: university graduates tend to have a higher salary in the long term. Similarly, there is a certain cultural cache that comes with a diploma. However, a fundamental change in the structure of universities is necessary for them to redefine what they teach and how they teach it. This realignment will allow such institutions to recall the primary goal of higher education: to create a better world for us all.