The Future of Graduate Education: The Next 25 Years

J. C. Tsang

By Dr. Eamon Kelley

We are all aware that the current state of graduate education, and the National Science Foundation (NSF), results in great measure from the conscious national policy put into place at the end of World War II. Without revisiting one more time the Vannevar Bush initiative and the positive aspects of this very successful policy, it is obvious that some problems have emerged since the establishment of the Federal/university partnership.

These problems have created rising stresses in the enterprise since the end of the "Golden Age" of academic research and education, a little more than a quarter century ago. The "Golden Age" ended when the exponential growth in Federal support to research universities stopped, just as many new research universities had begun to participate in the system, particularly the large public university systems. More recently, with the end of the Cold War, the fierce competition for research dollars has been coupled with a decline in the public sense of urgency toward funding fundamental research, particularly Defense related research in the physical sciences and engineering.

The findings of studies sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Science Board (NSB), and other organizations reveal growing pressure on research and graduate education, due to the expanding demands on universities from diverse stakeholders, and the competitiveness of the research system. Demands and competitive pressures have been exacerbated by rising costs, budget constraints on traditional sources of funds, globalization of advanced education, and rising demands from the public for accountability for research dollars through demonstrated social benefits.

Simultaneously we hear a rising chorus of criticisms from employers of Ph.D. graduates, from students themselves, and from the public. These include the narrowness of the curriculum and the experience provided by Ph.D. programs, the unresponsiveness of universities to the needs of the workforce, the lengthening time to degree, the large number of foreign students in our graduate programs, as well as the low participation by women and some domestic minority groups in science and engineering degree programs and on our faculties. There are further complaints concerning the inaccessibility of research faculty to their students, and the lack of guidance to graduate students on realistic future careers. There is, finally, the suspicion that time to degree for some graduate and especially postdoctoral students is prolonged not to benefit their education but rather to provide a source of cheap labor for their faculty advisers.

On the other hand, the faculty-centered model for graduate education also places enormous stress on individual faculty members. Graduate education is essentially an apprenticeship, which can demand substantial faculty time and personal involvement. Frequently, it also involves responsibility for obtaining support for the student through the faculty member's research program as well as managing growing regulatory and administrative requirements of the Federal government, university administrations and the competitive grant system.

As we look to the next quarter century for graduate education in the university, there can be no doubt that it will continue to experience change and adaptation as a result of the remarkable transformations in computing and information systems, among other factors. These new tools promise to transform both science and education in general. But we need especially to acknowledge the central role that universities will continue to play in innovations based on the new capabilities.

The academic sector has a special role in innovations in information science and technology, both in research and in education. Academic institutions must grasp and adapt to broad-based innovations in the movement and relationships of producers and users of information. As a result of the partnership between the Federal government and universities in advanced scientific computing and communication, what is now happening is that information - the commodity on which knowledge, learning, and education depend - is moving between distributors and users in new ways that are not susceptible to the old rules and hierarchies. Relationships between owners, distributors, and users of information have become fluid. Boundaries are blurred. And low-cost, high performance computers enable people to access and apply information to contexts never thought possible before.

Just as this new fluidity in the distribution of information is affecting such diverse businesses as financial institutions and movie distributors, so universities must both grasp and capitalize on the implications of this new medium for the distribution of knowledge and the support of learning. Have we given enough thought yet to how information systems will alter not just the way we communicate, but what we communicate? Have we considered how it will alter the cultural and institutional context in which we conduct our mission in graduate education?

It seems to me that our greatest challenge is not as simple as mastering and extending the technology of information systems. It involves building a new culture for the academy. The revolution in information technology will continue to bring significant changes in how we perform our functions as teachers and scholars, and how students learn. Those changes create an imperative for new institutional structures and a new academic culture. It will offer new opportunities for cooperation across institutions-for example among researchers employed at research institutions and in primarily teaching institutions-and for collaborations across fields of science.

I believe that one of the most dramatic changes will take place in the way we teach. In a current lecture class, students sit passively, receiving information. The mode of learning is task-oriented, with students succeeding by demonstrating, through written examinations, each one's assimilation of certain knowledge. There are clear limits to the intellectual dimensions of this kind of learning. A student can "study to test," focusing on acquiring the information needed to succeed but never really connecting on an intellectual and analytical plane with the subject. With information technology it is possible to transform the task of learning into a complex, active, and intellectually challenging engagement with a subject. The communication of knowledge becomes more dynamic, encouraging analytic inquiry earlier in the educational career and the cultivation of diverse perspectives and new insights.

In the past, universities and schools have been charged with producing the concepts from which new tools are developed. The globalization of teaching and learning through information technology means that now the raw data and observations from which researchers draw their insights, and on which they build their theories, can flow more quickly into their laboratories.

What does this transformation of teaching and learning mean for graduate education? Some prognosticators say that the research university as we know it will vanish, replaced by a "virtual university" where degrees can be pursued electronically from the students' homes. Only a few faculty will be required to research and design new learning software, which will be used by thousands, if not millions, of students across the world. Campuses will disappear. However, this image of the lone student, able to learn and apply his or her skills to generate new knowledge in isolation with only his or her computer to stimulate and provide feedback, does not reflect the reality of scientific research today. And I feel certain this will not be a model for academic research and graduate education in the future.

My own prediction envisions greater interdependence rather than independence among cutting edge researchers. Teamwork and collaboration will become ever more important as research questions draw on the expertise of diverse fields of knowledge. Information technology will change the "chemistry" of what makes a given university or department appeal to its students, but I do not believe that it will overshadow the elements that currently define graduate education. In fact, I believe the faculty and the aggregation of scholars and research resources within a university context will become even more important to the students of the future than they are today.

Though the physical facilities of a campus will still be important, the residential component for graduate and professional students may change. Rather than spending several years on a single campus, I predict that graduate students are likely to come to campus for shorter periods of concentrated interaction with faculty and research collaborators. They may travel to several campuses in various parts of the world; and they are likely to be attracted to a university that offers a diversity of physical settings, with modules offered abroad or to other affiliated campuses. The introduction of electronic learning will make the faculty more essential to universities than ever before. A professor's ability to recognize and cultivate qualities in students that are uniquely human is beyond the capacity of any technology available on the market.

Today, faculties are important as repositories and transmitters of information - as pedagogues who shape students' intellectual growth and as creators and sustainers of distinctive academic programs. But the new electronic learning will cause the nature of the student-mentor relationship to develop in new directions. The faculty of the future will need to be adept at drawing out the individual intellectual and creative talents of each student in guiding him or her beyond the mastery of information to the use and extension of knowledge. The future faculty will have to be not only adept but also extremely facile and creative at using the tools of information technology in order to fulfill their roles.

I believe we are now entering a new Golden Age for research and education in the next century. This new age also will be supported by the Federal/university partnership, but will include greater participation by other stakeholders, both in the U.S, and in the international science and technology communities. We should build on the base of our experience, using the new tools past public investment has provided us to expand knowledge and innovation. But graduate education must continue to change, both to address the need for greater flexibility for students in career preparation, and in response to relevant concerns raised by our stakeholders in industry, the academy and the public.

To sustain the new Golden Age, we need to continue to be more agile in identifying and adequately supporting the most promising areas for research. We need to enable broader cross-disciplinary, cross-sector, and cross-institution collaborations among researchers and their students, even while providing strong support to traditional fields. We must remember that research supported in institutions of higher learning has an impact on our national science and technology capabilities for the future-both human and physical. We should be quick to seek opportunities to employ the latest in technology in research and learning in an environment of free and open inquiry. And we should be more creative and effective in identifying strategies for expanding participation of underrepresented groups in academic research and education.

We have a system that works, that is internationally admired as the finest science and engineering graduate education system in human history. We must continue to enhance this system and expand its benefits. It is our obligation to provide our future citizens with a healthy infrastructure of cutting edge scientific research and graduate education, not just for today, but to serve the next quarter century and beyond.

Dr. Eamon Kelly is chairman of the National Science Board, which recently published The Federal Role in Science and Engineering Graduate and Postdoctoral Education. The above text was adapted from remarks made to the Council of Scientific Society Presidents in Washington, D.C., December 7, 1998. Dr. Kelly's complete remarks, as well as the full report, can be found at

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Barrett H. Ripin
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette

February 1999 (Volume 8, Number 2)

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