Education's Technological Revolution Hits Europe: Curricula Improvements Wanted, Cost Increases Not Wanted

Article excerpt

Paris -- Philippe Jollant, fed up with yet another boring lecture, stood up in his poetry class at the Sorbonne, swung his brown cloth bag over his shoulder and stalked out to a sunny cafe in this city's Latin Quarter.

"The Sorbonne is like an old chateau, a bit sclerotic," complained Jollant, a twenty-six-year-old modern literature student who's had enough of stuffy professors pushing the classics inside dull-green classrooms without any high-tech study aids.

Even prestigious universities like the Sorbonne, deeply entrenched in centuries-old academic traditions, may have to get with the times and respond to students like Jollant. A new report on higher education in the industrialized world predicts that colleges and universities will have to make sweeping changes in curricula as the ranks of students swell.

Education, once the domain of a privileged few, is democratizing rapidly, says the report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the official think tank for a tiny clique of upper-crust nations.

The ten-nation report praises some U.S. schools -- including colleges and universities in Virginia, as models in adapting to rapid changes. But it says other countries need to rethink postsecondary education to keep Up with advancing technology, accommodate students and fight unemployment with a better-skilled workforce.

Authors of the development organization's study struggled with the question of who should pick up the tab for the changes that the report recommends. Governments are strapped for cash, business involvement has its limits and, in European countries especially, boosting tuition has triggered student unrest.

"Europe is in a real dilemma here," Malcolm Skilbeck, the study s chief author and a former university administrator from Australia, said in an interview. He cited the accepted European tenet that "students should have access to knowledge free of charge."

Among the study's proposals are deferred payments, loans and work-study programs -- measures Europe has yet to widely adopt. But the report, which still needs to be blessed by the development organization's education committee before its scheduled release this fall, could put more pressure on countries to act.

Growing Numbers and Higher Expectations

Once a "distant goal for a small minority," higher education could soon reach 80 percent or more of the population, says the study. which examined several European countries, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. In some countries, the deluge already has arrived and it is sure to get worse before it gets better as colleges and universities schools scramble to keep pace.

The study predicts "ever higher levels of students at all ages" who will be seeking additional education to adjust to evolving job markets. From 1985 through 1994, enrollment among eighteen- to twenty-one-year-olds jumped from 25 percent to 40 percent in Canada and from 19 percent to 33 percent in France, the study says. In the United States, enrollment of twenty-six- to twenty-nine-year-olds rose from 8 percent to nearly 10 percent.

Among the trends are an expansion in off-campus distance education via television or computer, work experience studies, and specialized technical schools that serve regional business needs. The study notes criticism by students and teachers "of policies that suggest institutions are behaving too much like commercial enterprises."

The report also noted that colleges and universities have begun looking at "the student as the consumer" who "wants marketable skills and expects to acquire them with a minimum of effort, cost and time."

At more traditional schools, growing demand combined with constrained budgets has resulted in overcrowding and "unevenness in the quality of teaching and learning," the study says. Without naming names, the report says researchers found "excessive reliance in teaching on impersonal lecturing and insufficient interaction with teachers. …