The Сhanging Face Of Higher Education

Will education ever be free and affordable to everyone? If it is so, in what manner will humanity move away from the traditional system of education to the conceptually new one?

The popularity of online education – which goes hand in hand with profitability – is growing like mushrooms after a rain. As of 2015, the global system of e-learning has earned more than $107 billion, which is, according to economists, a rather conservative estimate. The market for online education enjoys a 10% rate of growth on an annual basis. The supply of it can barely catch up with demand since everyone has suddenly become eager to study. Under these conditions the traditional system of education is experiencing not only financial but also reputational stress. When compared to the Internet educational platforms, the conventional university system appears to be dull, expensive, and tradition-bound. However, this doesn’t mean that the classic system is of no interest to modern students. Let’s consider whether it would be possible to create a hybrid of the two, seemingly antagonistic models.  

Stereotypes and prejudice

There is no doubt that the traditional university-campus model has accumulated plenty of “blemishes” over the centuries. Let’s name just two of them. First is the stereotype regarding the prestige value of college and the eventual diploma. It might be expected that a respectable university’s name and reputation would be affirmed by the solid and viable base of knowledge that each of its graduates possesses, but, as we all know, in reality this is not the case. The issue isn’t about a diploma but rather about the personality and motivation of the graduate.

Last year, researchers from Gallup, in cooperation with specialists from Purdue University, interviewed 30 thousand American college graduates. Sociologists were curious about respondents’ estimation of their post graduate lives in terms of income and career development. It turned out that 39% of graduates consider themselves to be successful in their line of work (this is 10 points higher than average results among the US population as a whole). Five out of six graduates have estimated their lives as “good” in 1 of 5 categories of well-being (achievement of goals, financial security, physical health, family relations and feeling of pride in being a part of a community). However, only 11% of all respondents stated that they were prospering in every area of life. The important point of this research is that graduates of the most prestigious and renowned universities in the US have come to the same conclusions about their lives as ex-students of the worst colleges. By the way, research by Gallup has shown that there is absolutely no connection between a costly education in a private university and the income that a graduate earns in the future. The level of income is most closely linked to other choices that a person makes.

A year ago, the Russian portal conducted a poll among students regarding their decision to enroll in university. Twenty-seven percent of respondents stated that they were studying in university just to obtain a diploma. More than half of them are convinced that an employer wouldn’t even consider a person without a degree as a potential employee. Thirty percent of respondents believe that the lack of a diploma equals a lack of knowledge, and just 15% said that the availability of a diploma isn’t a necessary condition for entry into employment.    

We have taken a look at the issue of prestige. So, what about the second stereotype – is it essential to have a diploma, or not? Is it really so important when applying for a job? The reality is that is some cases it is absolutely necessary. At the first stage of selection, it is more advantageous for an employer to hire the candidate who already knows all the basics of a profession.    

According to Eurostat, in 2012, the overall unemployment rating in the 27 countries of the EU amounted to 10%, while the level of unemployment among university graduates turned out to be significantly lower – 6%. For instance, in Spain, it is predicted that the unemployment rate will remain at 25% until 2016, though the situation for university graduates will be materially better, since the unemployment level among them will be 17%. 

It should be noted that a diploma is no guarantee of employment. The situation in the IT industry is a case in point, because many IT companies give preference to the applicant’s personal qualities and professional experience rather than his academic ranking.

The era of “digital” diplomat 

Internet-accessible e-learning could become an alternative to the conventional system of higher education. What is the essence of this model? In fact, it is an academic program that is rather similar to a university one – it was created and tested by teachers, approved by academic boards, and afterwards posted on the Internet. It has lectures, workshops and practical exercises in which the student communicates directly with the supervisor and classmates. It also contains exams, tests and other means of knowledge evaluation that are applicable at institutions of higher education.

Many major and reputable universities have recognized the triumph of e-learning, while others resist online learning on principle.

The popularity rating of e-learning in selected countries:

India – 55%

China – 52%

Malaysia – 41%

Romania – 38%

Poland – 28%

Czech Republic – 27%

Brazil – 26%

Indonesia – 25%

Columbia – 20%

Ukraine – 20%

Meanwhile, the arrival of the digital era in education offers prospects of resolving the problem that only the lazy have been avoiding – the excessive commercialization of higher education. The model “college as a business” has greatly tarnished the reputation of universities. recently published an article called “How education forgot the students and became a business” and provided its readers with the following example: “Take the University of Texas at Austin, where President Bill Powers has 17 administrators on his staff, including two ‘deputies’, an executive assistant and multiple assistants. The provost has 10 (!) vice-provosts working for him (each with staff). The ‘director of diversity and community engagement’ has 14 ‘key’ administrators and an unknown number of lesser workers. And the development office lists 118 employees, 32 of whom worked in university communications (not counting communication specialists)”

The situation has changed with the introduction of MOOC (massive open online courses), where the only condition for acquiring a diploma is a decent Internet connection.The student’s expenses on tuition, accommodation and food are significantly reduced because he isn’t attached to one place and has a free schedule of classes. Upon completion of a course, he/she will receive not only knowledge but also certificates and sometimes even an actual academic degree that will be highly valued on the job market. Nevertheless, this system is also far from perfect.    

The Economist cites an example of a pilot program that was tested in 2012 at San Jose State University. Students were offered the opportunity to take mathematics and statistics courses on the Udacity platform. This experiment was a failure. Whereas 30% of students on campus had successfully passed the basic level of algebra, only 18% of them managed to complete this course. Representatives of Udacity stated that the San Jose experiment proved that students require more personalized support in order for them to take full advantage of e-learning courses at the university level.              

Experts express another concern regarding online education – the possibility of fraud, where some other person completes the course or passes an exam instead of the registered student. Some platforms and universities try to bypass this obstacle by introducing a mandatory on-site examination or checking the user’s identity by various technological means. 

Many students also worry that employers will be suspicious of their online diplomas. Indeed, there are no guarantees that companies will recognize these certificates as proper academic degrees. However, within university systems the credits gained at online courses have the same academic value as ordinary class hours. Moreover, in the US it is even possible to transfer or to enroll in another university while preserving the possibility of adding credits for the completed courses to the total number of credits. This system is not applicable in Europe, although experts predict a quick breakthrough in this direction.

Critical rhetoric regarding educational platforms and the general idea of e-learning often includes warnings about the possibility of losing the benefits of direct communication between teacher and student. However, in opposition to these concerns, online learning presents students with an opportunity to enroll in courses, presented by professors, whose lectures none of the students would get the chance to attend in real life.

As we can see, both educational systems – classic and online – have certain downsides. Nevertheless, the hybrid educational model, which includes the most advantageous features of both concepts, can provide modern students with not only the guarantee of quality of education, but also its affordability.    

 This article was originally published in Youth Time print edition, 30th issue. Click here to check the content of the issue, subscribe here, purchase one issue here.

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