The higher education landscape will change more in the next ten years than it has in the previous one hundred and fifty. Technology has challenged traditional assumptions about learning, and the proliferation of MOOCs and vocational training programs has led to new choices for aspiring students. Education is undoubtedly becoming more global, with record numbers of students seeking to go abroad for further study. These shifts all point to one truth: students all over the world face an increasing number of choices about what, how, and where to study.
Theoretically, it has never been easier for a Korean teenager who decides that she wants to pursue an education at one of Britain’s world-class universities to do so. She might opt to become one of over four hundred thousand international students studying in the UK for many reasons—not least because four of the world’s top ten universities are in the UK—and if she did so, it wouldn’t be just her who benefits. A recent report estimated international students’ financial contribution to the UK at over £14 billion pounds. From a cultural standpoint, international students are integral to creating a diverse university environment that can help prepare all students for a globally interconnected world.
We can largely credit technology for creating massive shifts in how we think about education; technology has facilitated our ability to know about other educational options, travel with ease to study in different places, and even learn from a distance (MOOCs). Yet this rapidly evolving education landscape is not serving its students well. The fact is that the way that many students are making decisions is at best misguided and at worst detrimental to their futures. Nothing illustrates this better than the case of international students, who face the additional hurdle of navigating an unfamiliar and bureaucratic process with less support.
Too many students finish their undergraduate degrees only to report that they didn’t attend a majority of their lectures, or were left uninspired by their chosen course, or with no real sense of how to translate their studies into a career. There are, of course, many reasons for these shortcomings, but we need to ask why we aren’t focusing more on how students make decisions and what to study in the first place. Are students’ chosen universities necessarily a good fit for them? This question, I believe, is one that applies to international and domestic students alike.
The money that is being spent (and there is a lot of it) is resulting in gross inefficiencies that mean students are underserved by the status quo. In the case of international students, universities are painfully reliant on the agent model, in which recruiters receive commission for sending students to a given university. The problem with agents is that they are incentivised by the universities. They are only accountable to universities that pay them to recruit students; finding a match for the student was never their priority. Outside of agents, students can employ expensive private counsellors to help them think about how to make higher education decisions. But it is only the wealthy who can realistically afford these services, and particularly for international students who are operating in an environment where their schools may know little about international admissions processes or may have limited resources, the problem is exacerbated. Students whose parents didn’t go to university are even more disadvantaged in that the confusing university applications process may appear even more opaque. The truth is that we are failing our students, and the collateral damage of this failure is an increasingly unequal educational system whereby we are not maximising the potential of our students, and we aren’t getting enough different types of students through the door in the first place.
As the education sector is disrupted by exciting advances that have the potential to revolutionise education, it is increasingly important to rethink what options serve students—and our educational system itself—best. In my opinion, technology presents a massive opportunity to democratise access to higher education by making students aware of the options they have and encouraging them to explore, think critically, and find universities that are good matches for them academically, socially and financially. It is only by scrutinising how students are making decisions about what and where they study that we will get closer to creating a higher education landscape that is fairer, more diverse and a better fit for our students’ needs.