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Resetting higher education: returning to the community

By Murray Hunter - posted Tuesday, 30 June 2020

The state restrictions placed on public places in response to the Covid-19 pandemic has put great strain on higher education, effectively mothballing campuses without staff or students on site. Students have reacted tepidly to online teaching alternatives activated after the pandemic restrictions while staff are frustrated. Arguments about fee restructuring for virtual education formats remain largely unresolved.

With universities under this kind of great strain, an opportunity arises to reset higher education. While there will always be an important role well-endowed institutions of higher education will play, many of the weaker private and public institutions are likely to either fold, amalgamate, or restructure themselves in some major way, particularly where governments won’t be bailing them out.

The higher education environment is now radically changed, with many low-income students unable to afford tuition fees, sources of income from foreign students are blocked in at least the short term, institutional fixed costs are extremely high, and with high graduate unemployment, the value of earning a degree is being increasingly questioned.


Consequently, higher education needs a renaissance. It needs to be relevant to earning incomes, affordable, without evolving into a debt trap, accessible without the need for students to be isolated on campuses, and provided to the community at a low institutional cost. It needs to go back to the grass roots, emulating what the technical and community colleges once were.

The mega-concept didn’t absorb faculty costs. Repressive quality schemes weren’t worth the cost and effort, as educational standards have actually decreased. University tenure systems are expensive, producing a cohort of narrow experts, rather than a community of generalists who can instruct holistically within disciplines and teach students how to solve practical problems.

This in the case of management, and many of the technical disciplines within the spheres of science, engineering, and agriculture, can revert to employing ‘pracademics,’ people who have industrial as well as academic experience. That opens up the nexus between academic and vocational education, something that would enhance job appeal. In areas where few job vacancies are available, entrepreneurship and the creation of new enterprises, coupled with a technical and practical grounding in the skills needed in selected activities, would create much value-added assistance to revitalizing communities.

There can be small specialized university-colleges for the professional disciplines of law, medicine, nursing, pharmacy and the like to produce those destined for a professional life. The humanities, such as history, languages, art, etc., could follow the small institute model as well, for those who want to pursuing education as an intellectual, rather than vocational goal.

This model can assist in development. In Thailand, the faculty of Agriculture of Prince of Songkhla University set up a successful pilot program called the MBA, or Moving by Action. Farmers and families were invited to campus for a semester long course, in the mornings learning small business, marketing, and entrepreneurship, and in the afternoons learning farming, food production and packaging. Many graduates of this initiative have gone on to create and sustain SMEs.

What is unsustainable needs transformation. We have reached the ludicrous situation where a store assistant requires a degree to get a job serving in a retail-based business. Shop assistants need degrees, as do bank tellers, office clerks and even cashiers in department stores. Universities have done the community a great disservice in talking up the value of a degree, which has led to inflated expectations of graduates and employers.


The biggest challenge is going to be helping people get employment after the Covid-19 pandemic is over. Unemployment is rising rapidly, predicted by some to reach levels that existed during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Higher education has to transform to do its part in solving this problem, and at the same time save itself from extinction. The key objective of higher education is to once again teach people how to learn.

Higher education institutions need to be freed form their self-imposed regulatory shackles and management cultures. It is no longer about being a global educator, but going back to becoming a community educator. This will be the greatest challenge facing higher education during the coming decade.

Taking a look  back, the university institutional model grew out of traditional community-based technical colleges in an era where investment in social educational wellbeing and technical expertise were valued over profit. The 1970s saw exponential growth in higher education, which was regarded as a right for all in welfare societies. The 1980s and 1990s saw the development of large conglomerate universities, with smaller institutions merging, multi-campus models developing, and university status was coveted.

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This article was first published in Asia Sentinel.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis. He blogs at Murray Hunter.

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