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Margin Notes

The top three hoary metaphors of the higher-ed apocalypse

Popping bubbles! Dying industries! Great disruptions! The end is nigh!


To read about higher education today, one might get the impression that the whole ivy-covered edifice is on shaky ground, ready to collapse. Universities are certainly facing big challenges, but much of what’s being said seems to me wildly pessimistic. The metaphors used to describe this parlous state I find particularly amusing.

To be fair, most of the commentary I highlight below is in reference to the U.S. higher education system, but some Canadian commenters have parroted these same arguments when talking about the problems facing Canada’s system, so I think it’s fair game to cite them here. Forthwith, I present my top three hoary metaphors of the higher-ed apocalypse.

1. Higher education is a bubble waiting to pop.

Borrowing an economic metaphor, several commentators have claimed that higher education is overpriced relative to its value, and once people figure this out the education market will crash, much like the U.S. housing market did in 2008 and the dot-com craze before that. The higher-ed bubble hypothesis seems to have been first articulated early in 2011 in an article on the website Tech Crunch, quoting hedge fund manager and venture capitalist Peter Thiel. The idea was quickly picked up by the Economist, New York magazine (great photo!) and others.

The Economist’s Schumpeter blog summarizes Thiel’s argument this way:

“Tuition costs are too high, debts loads are too onerous, and there is mounting evidence that the rewards are over-rated. Add to this the fact that politicians are doing everything they can to expand the supply of higher education … much as they did everything that they could to expand the supply of ‘affordable’ housing, and it is hard to see how we can escape disaster.”

The bubble metaphor has not gone unchallenged. Good arguments popping the bubble myth can be found in Inside Higher Ed, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Fast Company  and Slate.

2. Higher education is like the dying newspaper industry.

Picking up on some of the themes above, Thomas Kunkel, the president of St. Norbert College in De Peer, Wisconsin, explains the parallels:

“Both the newspaper industry and higher education have largely failed to recognize the Internet as an emerging competitive threat or a useful tool to be exploited. Both have been reluctant to innovate their core products. Indeed, both have operated in a kind of self-constructed bubble, assuming they can conduct business the way they always have—by imposing lavish price increases as if it were a sovereign right, for instance, or taking a young-adult audience for granted. And both newspapers and higher education have imagined they would be around forever.”

Kevin Carrey, who interestingly didn’t support the bubble hypothesis in the Chronicle link above, does support the dying newspaper industry analogy. He writes in a 2009 post: “Both industries are in the business of creating and communicating information. Paradoxically, both are threatened by the way technology has made that easier than ever before.”

Bonus: universities have also been compared to the dying automobile industry, the bankrupt Kodak film company and the now-shuttered Borders Bookstores.

3. Higher education is heading for the “Great Disruption.”

The Great Disruption meme (complete with Upper Caps) was popularized by Michael Staton, CEO of the U.S. company Inigral. Supporting the higher-education bubble theme, he argued last September that the current business model of universities is broken. Others have used the Great Disruption metaphor in reference to how online education is going to wipe out the traditional universities as we know them, prompting the Atlantic magazine to envision a post-campus America. Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente picked up on the Great Disruption meme, opining that the current university model “has reached the end of the line in Canada, too.”

As proof that the Great Disruption is nigh, many commentators point to the success of the “Stanford education experiment,” which saw 160,000 people sign up for a free, online Introduction to Artificial Intelligence course taught by its professors Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig. Meanwhile, Harvard and MIT recently announced they’ll offer free online courses through a project called edX, while a number of other universities – including Stanford – will do the same through Coursera. Two New York Times columnists have waxed poetic about this coming shake-up in higher education: Thomas Friedman (“Come the Revolution”) and David Brooks (“The Campus Tsunami”).

This has led to some remarkable hyperbole, such as Professor Thrun prophesizing that in 50 years, there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education; or a Forbes columnist who suggests that mass online education will make 90 percent of the professoriate obsolete with the next 20 years.

Perhaps I’m mistaken, but I just don’t see this burgeoning demand for online education, at least not among the key segment of full-time undergraduate students. I side with Alex Usher of the Canadian firm Higher Education Strategy Associates, who states emphatically: “There. Is. No. Great. Disruption. Coming. In. Higher. Education. Period.” His reasoning:

“Yes, there are some very interesting educational experiments going on out there. But does any of this amount to a serious challenge to universities? Does any of it make it more likely that 18- to 24-year-olds will abandon schools to go take courses online? No, because apart from some marginal techno-freaks, everyone thinks education is a social activity, which requires a much richer set of interactions than is possible online. … The new technology does make certain types of education – essentially continuing education and certain types of professional development – less costly and more convenient. And to a certain clientele (but not 18- to 24-year-olds) this matters. But this clientele is pretty marginal at most universities, so it’s hard to see why institutions would face some kind of disruptions.”

(You may also wish to read the recent thoughts of Alan Slavin on this topic elsewhere on our site.)

Finally, this crisis talk is, of course, not really new. Peter Drucker is quoted in Forbes in 1997 as saying, “Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won’t survive. It [Internet technology] is as large a change as when we first got the printed book … the system is rapidly becoming untenable.” He still has 15 years to be proven right. Any bets?

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Leo Charbonneau / June 6, 2012 at 08:15

    On Twitter, @joshuajensen tweeted that I was conflating metaphor with theory in terms of the Great Disruption. Likewise, @qui_oui, our Speculative Diction blogger Melonie Fullick, noted essentially that the Great Disruption isn’t a metaphor because nothing is being compared to it. I accept their points. If they prefer, borrowing from the New York Times headline on David Brooks’s column, how about the “tsunami” of change bearing down on higher ed?

    But the blog post wasn’t meant as a grammar lesson. The larger point I was trying to make is that these three scenarios for the future of higher education are all quite alarming. I wonder why that is so at this point in time? Granted, there are proponents of the Great Disruption who believe this coming shake-up to be a positive and much-needed development. However, I would think that from the perspective of most faculty and students, the notion of large numbers of campuses being shut down and the majority of teachers being made redundant due to mass online learning is not something to be cheered or desired. Faculty members would indeed become the out-of-work newspaper reporters of higher ed.

  2. Josh Jensen / June 6, 2012 at 10:39

    Leo, I agree that the rhetorical alarm bells are sounding loudly… perhaps so loudly that we haven’t been able to remove our hands from our ears and fully assess what’s going on. Instead, we’re just running from the building–even though we haven’t seen the actual fire.

    That said, I believe the fire is real and burning brightly. However, rising costs aren’t the fire, althought they may be the fuel. The fire is the gradual but persistent change in our national understanding of higher education as a private good vs a public good, coupled with massive consumerization of higher education (and, indeed of much else in society). This paired with the influx of disruptive models of higher education such as online education and the decoupling of content and credentialing, point toward an industry ripe for disruption (as a theoretical construct — not a metaphor per se).

    While you indicate agreement with those who dismiss these off-hand as not applicable to the dominant market for higher ed — 18-24 year olds — disruptive innovation theory predicts exactly this dynamic, where a disruption gains favor among a group a new entrants to a market (or those under-served by a traditional market), and then builds quality and credibility to the point of overwhelming (disrupting) the traditional market.

    Many of us see this exact dynamic taking place in higher education, and there is a lot of data to support the idea. This is where my critique of your argument comes in to play. I agree — the rhetoric on both sides of the table is deafening. But if we look past that, there are a handful of people who have rigorous theory backing them up, and with some additional scrutiny, I believe you would find those predicting disruptive innovation in higher education among that group. Thanks for the dialogue.

  3. A$AP Rocky / June 6, 2012 at 16:37

    Conflating metaphor with theory? Isn’t theory just metaphor garbed and gussied with fashionable discourse.

    Are the metaphors above three or one? A collection of dead metaphors for the metaphor of death. I guess they differ slightly in timescale… heart attack versus cancer. But morbidity just the same.

    Regardless, the sickness in this case sounds like a touch of hypochondriasis.

  4. Chris McConnell / June 7, 2012 at 08:23

    “Universities won’t survive. It [Internet technology] is as large a change as when we first got the printed book …”

    It probably is, but universities survived that change, too.

  5. Leo Charbonneau / June 8, 2012 at 09:47

    I half-joked in a comment above that if readers wanted a metaphor for the Great Disruption, how about the “tsunami” of change coming from online technology. I may be on to something, as the tsunami metaphor has again surfaced. John Hennessy, president of Stanford University, recently said that technology is going to radically transform education, and added: “There’s a tsunami coming … I don’t know how it’s going to break, but my goal is to try to surf it, not just stand there.”