An Exploration of the Evolution of University Education and the Effects of Current Economic and Political Climates on Higher Education
University education all over the world is undergoing significant change. According to Universities-UK (2012), most of the changes facing universities today are brought about by cultural, political, technological, and economic factors. Such factors affect how universities are structured, how they operate, how they are funded, and the expectations that both the learners and other stakeholders have on the universities (Altbach & Davis 1999; Universities-UK 2012).
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Previously, Universities in most parts of the world (including the United Kingdom, the United States of America, and China), enjoyed “high ranking on national, state and local societal agendas” (Goldstein & Qayoumi 2012, p.12). This is no longer the case. Goldstein and Qayoumi (2012) argue that governments’ focus is now divided among different priority sectors, which include K-12 education, social programs, health care, and security. The shifting government focus means that university education is no longer a top priority for most governments, especially in relation to funding and management.
The evolution of university education is perhaps best captured by Davenport (2001, para.2), who notes “Governments are cutting funding. Well-trained faculty are becoming increasingly hard to find, and even harder to pay. The demand for university training is increasing, while the ability of universities to provide the educational requirements of the society is being eroded.” The foregoing quotation by Davenport (2001) could be interpreted to mean that universities are now, more than ever, facing difficult times.
That is despite universities’ growing importance to the knowledge economy. Considering that universities are perceived as trendsetters in innovation and research, they have found ways through which they can overcome the different challenges they face. Consequently, universities have sought partnerships with government and non-government organizations in order to enhance their sustainability, knowledge development, and knowledge diffusion.
In the past, university education was arguably seen as a platform for enhancing the public good. As Goldstein and Qayoumi (2012) note, however, higher education is today perceived as beneficial to individual learners only. The two authors further note that in the past, “it was enough to highlight the economic value of a college education or point out the discoveries growing out of a campus-based research” (Goldstein & Qayoumi 2012, p. 11). Notably, the aforementioned reasons no longer sway governments to support university education willingly. Among the reasons for hesitation by governments is the possibility that universities earn enough money from the fees charged to the students.
Brennan and David (2010) note that in the past university attendance was the preserve of the wealthy few, who could afford the high cost of tuition. University attendance, hence, was proof of one’s social status. Today, however, the wealthy and the not-so-wealthy attend universities. According to Brennan and David (2010), the foregoing trend is deliberate since most governments in both the developed and developing countries are advocating affordable education for all people.
Goldstein and Qayoumi (2012), however, note that college fees have escalated over the years, and at times, the general public, as well as governments, question the effective management of institutions of higher learning. In the US, for example, the College Board has been pressuring universities to justify why they need to increase tuition fees (Goldstein & Qayoumi 2012). In other words, the College Board is holding Universities to account, in order to ensure that the high tuition fees do not prevent economically-disadvantaged students from seeking and attaining higher education.
In addition to political pressures from respective governments, universities in most parts of the developed world have evolved to include more decision-making by students. According to Universities-UK (2012), students have some decision-making impetus on issues such as the institutions they want to attend, the subjects they wish to major in, and the modes of learning delivery they prefer. Universities have also evolved to become more resilient institutions through enacting effective strategies that make it possible for them to function in an ever-changing society (Universities-UK 2012).
Other changes in Universities have their genesis in the ever-increasing demand for education by international students. According to Universities-UK (2012), the influx of international students has enhanced diversity management in universities, in addition to having an economic impact on local and national economies. Usually, international students through their tuition fees, enhance the foreign exchange earning of the beneficiary country.
Altbach, Reisberg, and Rumbley (2009, p. VI) argue that the “phenomenon of massification (sic)” is what has led to a major revolution in university education. In the aforementioned phenomenon, there has been a mass demand for high education, which has in turn been triggered by shifts in the world economy. Such shifts include the knowledge and post-industrial economies as well as the service industries (Altbach et al. 2009). The authors also note that compared to the past decade, women are increasingly pursuing higher education. Altbach et al. (2009) specifically note that women are the majority of students in most universities.
Another form of change in universities is that student diversity is increasing. Diversity is enhanced by an influx of international students, but also because older students and students living with disabilities are increasingly pursuing higher education (Altbach et al. 2009).
Regardless of the evolution that has taken place in universities, there have been sentiments (e.g. from Pascarella & Terenzini 2005), which indicate that learning does not occur in a particular time or space. Rather, the two authors argue that learning happens continuously and unpredictably in various places (Pascarella & Terenzini 2005). The two authors, however, note that institutions of higher learning provide the social and relational platform needed by learners. The foregoing platforms are necessary since learning does not take place in isolation; rather, it occurs when learners engage each other and perform different tasks (Pascarella & Terenzini 2005).
The impact of information and communications technology (ICT) on university education is also noteworthy. As Altbach et al. (2009) note, ICT has contributed major changes to the education sector, and most especially to institutions of higher learning. Some of the areas that have been affected by technology, and which undoubtedly have brought about a revolution in higher learning include learning, teaching, and science (Altbach et al. 2009).
The fit: Universities are a central part of the knowledge economy
Throughout the world, higher education (i.e. colleges and universities) provides the knowledge necessary to support a knowledge economy. The knowledge economy concept lacks a definite definition in the literature. The Business Dictionary (2014, para.1) defines it as “an economy based on creating, evaluating and trading knowledge.” In other words, the knowledge economy concept emphasizes the role that the creation, dissemination, and use of knowledge have on the economy.
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On their part, Powell and Snellman (2004, p. 199) define it as the “production and services based on knowledge-intensive activities that contribute to an accelerated pace of technical and scientific advance, as well as rapid obsolescence.” In their definition, Powell and Snellman (2004) emphasize the idea that intellectual abilities are more important in a knowledge economy compared to natural resources, labor, and other forms of physical inputs in an economy.
The evolution of university education fits in with the knowledge economy concept because as Powell and Snellman (2004, p.199) indicate, most economies are now “driven by technologies based on knowledge and information production and dissemination.” Incidentally, most production of knowledge takes place within institutions of higher learning. The same knowledge is then disseminated either through publications, technology, or human capital to the labor market. As Altbach et al. (2009) note, universities are devoted to creating and disseminating knowledge. Lecturers and students share roles in creating and disseminating knowledge. Lecturers teach while the university students learn and use the acquired knowledge in their careers
The Universities are without doubt influenced and in some cases, transformed by ICT. As Altbach et al. (2009) note, the traditional university may soon become obsolete based on ICT interventions alone. The authors cite the example of distance learning as one way through which the traditional classroom is slowly becoming extinct. In the traditional classroom, tutors and learners met face-to-face.
With distance learning and other ICT-mediated learning, however, the tutors and learners meet virtually on online platforms. Altbach et al. (2009) offer a caveat indicating that while distance learning was thought to be a major threat to traditional classroom learning, it has not been accepted widely by both tutors and learners. The foregoing position notwithstanding, it has been noted that ICT, and most especially, personal computers and the internet, have played a major role in transforming universities and enhancing the communication of knowledge.
The revolution, which has seen universities embrace the use of ICT, is arguably one of the main ways through which they fit in the knowledge economy. Huete-Perez, Sommer, and Guezada (2012), for example, note that universities promote the use of ICT in the larger economy. Additionally, universities have led innovations that use ICT in sectors such as science, agriculture, medicine, and health sciences.
Huete-Perez et al. (2012) further note that universities are active co-creators of the knowledge economy through innovations, which they use to produce and manage knowledge. Such knowledge is especially important for developing countries. The knowledge helps developing countries lessen the development gap in easier ways compared to what would have been the case if they had to rely on traditional ways of development (Huete-Perez et al. 2009).
Davenport (2001) adds his voice in the knowledge economy debate and the role that universities have in the same by noting that university graduates are in high demand in the workforce, and they are well remunerated. The author argues that to understand the knowledge economy well, people must be willing to understand how organizations and people are using technology to increase the production and consumption of goods and services (Davenport 2001).
Arguably, people are of important interest to this paper, because it is them who attend universities to acquire an education, which they then use in the knowledge economy. As Davenport (2001, para.9) further notes, “the knowledge economy generates a strong demand for university graduates because of the very nature of scholarly activity in a university.” In other words, because universities offer learning, which includes research and innovation, the knowledge economy relies on them (universities) to generate the human capital needed to sustain itself.
In order to grow, the knowledge economy needs innovations and discoveries (Davenport 2001). Universities, on the other hand, have become a breeding ground for research and innovations. Arguably, the enhanced ability for research and innovations in universities has to a great extent, been enhanced by the ICT evolution. It is, however, worth noting that universities are not always close to the markets that benefit from the knowledge economy.
Rather, it takes collaboration with firms operating in specific markets for the knowledge generated in the universities to be transferred into the market place. Sometimes, such firms fund the research done by universities because most realize that innovations made in the universities provide the ‘fuel’ needed to drive competition in their respective industries (Davenport 2001).
In the conclusion of this part, it is important to reiterate the main points made herein. First, this paper has established that the evolution in universities includes enhanced student numbers, greater diversity, and reduced government funding. Additionally, universities currently find it harder to get trained faculty members, and even when they do, they have to be willing to remunerate them well.
Arguably, this stems from the knowledge that faculty members impart students with the knowledge, which is central to the knowledge economy concept. Universities are also characterized by greater use of ICT, and this has changed the traditional way of instruction and learning. The evolution of university education fits in with the knowledge economy because as argued above, the knowledge economy relies heavily on human knowledge. In most cases, such knowledge is acquired in universities, hence explaining the demand for university graduates in the labor sector. Arguably, it would appear that universities provide the ‘fuel’ needed to run a knowledge economy.
A reflection of Own Digital Behaviour
As a university student, my digital behavior can be defined as the way I act when using digital tools. In my case, the digital tools include my laptop, my smartphone, and my tablet. I often use the laptop for coursework in the university, since it has a better screen and is easy to type with. I also use it for reading, since as Liu (2005) notes; electronic documents are now a common characteristic in many libraries.
While reading on my personal computer, I spend quite a significant amount of time engaging in selective reading, which is made possible by keyword spotting and browsing. The only time I engage in in-depth reading is when a course or a subject demands the same. With time management challenges in the university, I have found that non-linear reading enables me to acquire knowledge on issues that are relevant to my course, or which I had not fully understood in previous reading attempts. I also use the laptop for all my writing engagements including course assignments since I find the keyboard easier to use compared to the other digital tools. I also rely on the laptop for online transactions, since the internet security software on my PC is reliable hence meaning that I am able to use my credit card without any concerns.
I use the smartphone for social connection purposes. I use it to access my Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, LinkedIn, and Instagram accounts. I find the smartphone easier and appropriate for use in the aforementioned sites because I carry it everywhere, and whenever I have some spare time, I can easily retrieve it and check updates on social platforms. The advantages of being socially connected include establishing new networks and identifying people with similar interests. Social networks also make it makes it easier to know what is trending and one can share their interests and accomplishments with people within their social networks (British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) 2013).
Notably, however, I am well aware of the disadvantages of social networking. For example, time, which would otherwise be used in pursuit of more academically rewarding ventures, has been lost needlessly by visiting social networking sites. Additionally, BBC (2013) notes that students provide information that could jeopardize their cybersecurity on social networking sites. I am certain that people know more than they would about me based on my presence on social media. Based on the foregoing, and notwithstanding the fact that I do not provide too many personal details on social networks, I believe that as BBC (2013) notes, my cybersecurity is sub-optimal. I have also noted that I do not meet with as many people as I should, and instead choose to meet some of my online friends virtually.
I rarely use my tablet device; however, in cases when I need to read from a hand-held device, I usually use it. Additionally, I use the tablet to scan different items on the internet, and when I find something that I like, I use the PC to purchase the same. The tablet also comes in handy when I need the convenience of using a hand-held device (e.g. in lecture halls) in order to access course content or discussion threads.
Effect on future social and workforce contribution
My PC and tablet usage behavior does not warrant any concern since I am well disciplined in how I handle them. My main concern, especially as I look forward to establishing a laundry business in the future is that my social network behaviors could deteriorate especially if I have more free time. Different studies conducted on social network and productivity in the workplace indicate that too much presence on the social networks often hurts job performance and productivity (Aguenza & Som 2012; Castilla 2005; Kandiero, Mpanwa & Jagero 2014). Security risks also increase with an increased social media presence (Peacock 2008).
When used responsibly, and within a restricted time, Meister (2013) found out that social networks can boost employee performance. Responsible use of social media includes having specific goals when networking and sticking to the same. For example, a laundry business could establish an online presence with the goal of extending its business network. To succeed in its endeavor, the owner of the laundry business must stick to the original goals and avoid being carried away by the countless topics trending on social media and which may not be relevant to the original goal.
Another responsible way, which this writer can engage with social media, is by joining formal social networks. Breslin (2009) indicates that formal social networks have a specific intent, and this differentiates them from informal networks. Formal networks are intentional in purpose right from the time they are set up, the information that is communicated to members, and actions taken by members in order to attain specific outcomes (Martensen, Borgmann & Bick 2011).
Wilson (2009) also notes that social networks provide a company with a quick way to get information from suppliers, consumers, and any other stakeholders. Specifically, Wilson (2009, p. 55) argue that organization can “actively leverage the power of social networks to find new business opportunities, new groups of like-minded individuals and companies, and new sources of industry specific wisdom, advice and expertise.” In other words, if used in the right way and for the right purpose, social media networks can become an important success tool for business.
Ferreira and du Plessis (2009) support the foregoing argument by noting that business owners (and managers) should channel social networks effectively to avoid pitfalls that jeopardize the network’s contribution to the business. On their part, Wavecrest Computing (2009) argues that business owners should engage in online risk management to take care of issues such as possible legal liability, security breaches, and costs of accessing the networks.
Arguably, when used correctly, the social media tools that this writer has fits into the knowledge economy, since they would enable him to access wider markets for the laundry business without necessarily using traditional marketing methods.
Risks and opportunities
In my opinion, a connected world presents more opportunities for business than risks. The laundry market in China is full of opportunities and as CCTV (2010) indicates, “Each laundry serves 25 thousand people” in the country. If the statistics provided in the foregoing paragraph are anything to go by, it is clear that a laundry business would serve quite a significant number of customers. To ease the process of paying for and checking on the status of one’s clothes, the business could use online services. The laundry business can tweet their potential customers, promote the business on Facebook and post pictures of their business location on Instagram. The business can further connect with other business people on LinkedIn. Additionally, social media makes communication to and from customers easier.
The risks of social media in the laundry business, however, cannot be wished away. Zeiger (2014, para.5) argues that “allowing access to social networking in the workplace opens a company up to breaches in confidentiality and a tarnished image.” Specifically, a dissatisfied employee or consumer can publish allegations against the laundry business on an online social platform. Regardless of whether the allegations are true or false, they would still affect the business negatively.
Another risk relates to employees posting business information that contravenes confidentiality requirements (Zeiger 2014). When such a thing happens, the business is inadvertently exposed to competition hence risking its short-term market performance. Fortunately, this risk can be minimized by communicating policies regarding what employees can post on social media to them.
Overall, it would appear that the laundry business, which I intend to set up upon graduation, can benefit from opportunities presented by social networking sites. However, I realize the need to identify and manage all possible risks related to using social media. I realize that if the risks are not well managed, they can jeopardize the competitiveness and the general survival of the business in both the short and long terms.
The university experience
As one analyst aptly puts it, “social media is already in campus” (Lederer 2012, para. 2). In my university experience, I have learned to interact in not only new ways using social media but also in relatively exciting ways. Using different social media platforms on campus has enabled me to find answers that would otherwise have taken me more time to discover; exchange ideas with my fellow learners, and dialogue with both my fellow students and course instructors. I, therefore, opine that my social media use during my university years has enhanced the manner in which I communicate, discuss and collaborate different issues with other students and the tutors.
The above benefits notwithstanding, my experience using social media on campus have also made me realize that social networks can be addictive, and if not well managed they can distract people from pursuing their goals. Social media can also provide a harassment platform where some students are targeted for persecution and ridicule. I have also noted that social media usage has made people arguably lazy to initiate face-to-face communication.
I have witnessed people in the same classroom posting updates on Facebook rather than talking to each other. As Lederer (2012) observes, such over-reliance on social media undermines the student’s opportunities for acquiring social skills that are often necessary for real-life situations. Indeed, one of the key areas that tech-savvy students may encounter difficulties communicating effectively is during their job interviews. To counter the foregoing shortcomings and considering that I am an international student, I deliberately try to make conversation with other people.
Digital literacy in modern higher education
Since we live in a digital world, the importance of digital literacy in modern higher education cannot be overemphasized. Deakin Learning Futures (2013, p. 1) define digital literacy as the use of “technologies to find, use and disseminate information.” As implied in the foregoing quotation, digital literate students access information, utilize it, and communicate it to others using technology. Arguably, therefore, digital literacy is important in modern-day universities. Deakin Learning Futures (2013) support the foregoing argument by observing that students can only engage effectively in an online environment if they are digitally literate. Online engagement is critical to learning in most universities because some course instructions are delivered on online platforms.
Students are also encouraged to participate in online discussion forums. Notably, digital literacy does not only include basic ICT skills but also requires students to understand how to learn independently, use the information ethically and uphold ethics while communicating. Additionally, digital literacy requires students to know how to search, analyze, create and communicate information on online forums (Deakin Learning Futures 2013).
This part of the paper contains an analysis of this writer’s digital behaviors and their fit in a knowledge economy. The paper notes that the writer’s digital behavior fits in a digital economy where more emphasis is on knowledge creation, acquisition, utilization, and transmission. The paper further argues that although there are significant risks and opportunities in a connected world, the risks can be effectively managed to enable a business to utilise the opportunities present in the same connected world.
The paper has also indicated that through social networks in the university, this writer has gained specific insights in networking and avoiding pitfalls contained in social networks. Finally, the paper has argued that digital literacy is essential in institutions of higher learning because such literacy equips students with the knowledge and skills needed to acquire, utilize, create, and disseminate information on online forums. Digital literacy is arguable, not only important to student’s university life, but also in their lives after graduation.
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