The standard model of university education is to recruit students to pre-existing degree programmes, offered by a faculty that has been established over many years or decades. Even when there is the flexibility to create new programmes, these may take a long time to be approved and implemented.
Hence, universities’ capacity to create knowledge and convey skills very much depends on their local academic strengths. Meanwhile, the world becomes increasingly globalised, driving ever faster change and innovation.
What if the higher education institutions were to ditch the constraints that hamper them from keeping up? What if universities – particularly smaller ones, without huge talent pools of their own to draw from – were to decide from year to year what programmes to offer, and then hire the best possible instructors to teach them, on temporary contracts?
I envisage such an approach being particularly valuable at the level of one-year taught master’s degrees, particularly if delivered in eight successive 3.5-week blocks (with half a week’s break between each). This would allow the institution to hire instructors for those individual blocks only, rather than a full semester or academic year.
Such a block structure has already been adopted at the likes of Colorado College, Cornell College, Iowa, and Quest University, Canada. With three daily hours of seminar- or tutorial-style instruction over 18 days, it is significantly more intense than traditional 10-16 week master’s courses. And entire courses could be delivered in appropriate off-campus locations, such as a particular linguistic environment, natural habitat or industrial location.
Quality could be assured via a framework that subsumed all taught master’s streams under one accredited umbrella “master of arts and sciences” qualification – or else in the context of the institution’s overall accreditation. A dedicated programming and recruitment unit would determine the streams to be offered in the coming year, and then invite applications for admission. Alternatively, an open admission process could be conducted, from which cohorts would be selected, on merit, with similar prerequisites and preferred choices for their degree.
As for how many streams to run and how many students to recruit, institutions would need to develop a formula that best balanced their own needs and resources with those of the students. But let us imagine a small institution with an undergraduate enrolment of 1,000 that envisages having a master’s programme with 100 students annually in 10 different streams (small class sizes guarantee intense learning environments). This would amount to 80 classes, requiring 80 instructors. If the total instructor compensation per block were $10,000 (including salary, airfare, accommodation and overheads), this would amount to a total fee of $8,000 per student.
Teacher recruitment could be facilitated by identifying a lead professor for each stream, who could co-opt suitable additional instructors. Tens of thousands of academics already undertake sabbaticals or visiting appointments across the globe: these people would be obvious recruitment targets. So would emeriti professors. And many academics outside appointments might be happy for a temporary post.
For fields close to my own, I would be able to find multiple highly qualified individuals. Nor would money be their only motivation. Many colleagues who have been teaching the same courses year after year have low motivation. They would be highly motivated to break out of their routine and assume such a contract position.
A university that was not so much a trader in its own educational commodity as a broker of global talent could be accused of being parasitic on the rest of the sector. But visiting appointments or short-term research stays at other institutions are typically seen as a distinction in a scholar’s career. Teaching on the envisaged master’s programme – sharing responsibility for design of the teaching, assignments and exams for a particular stream, as well as the provisions for the capstone project or thesis – could be seen as complementing an individual’s experience and training, thereby benefiting their home institution.
Moreover, if we see higher education institutions not as competitors but as partners in the creation and distribution of knowledge, lending teachers to each other for short periods should not be seen as an infringement.
Of course, if such programmes were widely adopted, the pool of available visiting and emeriti professors would soon be exhausted, obliging programme leaders to target early career scholars instead. And some readers might object that this would further entrench a gig economy that is undermining such scholars’ sense of security and collegiality. Perhaps it would. However, that should be set against the immense benefits of such a programme for students and employers.
Such a fully flexible framework would allow universities to respond to changes in the knowledge economy and labour market as they occur (including challenges such as the current pandemic), with a steady influx of new intellectual approaches and professional viewpoints. Any institution that adopted it would provide students with the best possible preparation for a life of valuable employment.
Author Bio: Thomas Schneider is associate vice-president (international) at the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech), China. He would like to thank former Quest University president Peter Englert for inviting him to design a similar programme to the one described as a thought experiment.