What do higher education and the music industry have in common?

It is hard to overstate the impact that technology will have on universities over the next decade or so. It will even impact on that universal campus concern: parking. Last week The New York Times reported that the University of Wisconsin-Madison is resisting putting in more car parking spaces, despite a shortage. They foresee a campus more reliant on ride-hailing, car-sharing and the ferrying of people by autonomous vehicles.

Technology, in other words, is already attacking the one valid definition of a university in the post-War period; of scholars uniting around a common grievance over car parking.

Of course, it won’t just be empty car parks that come to define the university of the future. What, how and when students learn will all fundamentally change.

The bachelor degree will be under real threat as micro-credentials take off. Employers will be looking for people with portfolios of achievements that include core skills and requirements specific to the role but also include evidence that they are innovative, achieving, creative and collaborative.

Arguably, higher education will take a similar historical path to the music industry.

Live performance was largely but not entirely displaced by analogue recording in the first half of the 20th century which in turn was displaced by a digital but still physical disk by the 1990s. At that stage, the recording label (hint: the university) was still prominent.

But then digital downloads of single tracks (hint: micro-credentials) were pioneered, so the idea of an integrated whole piece of work assembled by the creator was dislodged (hint: the degree). Then streaming emerged out of the file-sharing technologies that had been outlawed for not paying royalties. Just as Napster arguably spawned streaming, MOOCs (massive open online courses which have been around since 2012) arguably has spawned the modern micro-credential.

Curated playlists (hint: micro-credential portfolios) which are just emerging will be the next innovation. And just as Spotify streams music using AI to suggest playlists based on assumed preferences, portfolios of short courses will, in the not too distant future, be suggested according to the learner’s desired goals.

I expect we will see big aggregators contracting with universities to provide content to students, just as streaming services (Pandora, Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play, Tidal etc) contract with music labels to provide content to listeners.

People will occasionally go to a live lecture, just like they will continue to go to stadium gigs, pubs and clubs for their live music dose, but it’s no longer the norm.

In a recent speech, Chief Scientist Alan Finkel said that we associate speculating about the future with prophecy: voodoo, astrology and economics.

I like the quotation but I think economics is going to win the day. When an alternative is both cheaper, better and simpler to deliver at scale than the status quo, it will win the day. Technology isn’t that yet in higher education, but it will be.


Professor Stephen Parker is lead partner for the Education Sector at KPMG. This blog is based on a presentation to the Universities Governance and Regulations Forum in Canberra on September 14.


2 thoughts on “What do higher education and the music industry have in common?

  1. Yes I agree. In the paper I gave last week I talked about the teaching superstar arriving, beamed or streamed from wherever they are.

  2. Another aspect that MOOCs are pioneering is the celebrity “professor”. Some highly regarded courses, especially in technology, are offered by professionals working in industry. Credentials are still provided by a 3rd party institution, but the lectures are essentially outsourced to the best “professor”. This may lead to fewer lecturer positions over time, as more people tune into MOOCS such as Udemy or Coursera.

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