Fri | Jan 21, 2022

Jamaica in 2050 – Part 7: The future of education

Published:Sunday | December 5, 2021 | 12:06 AM

In a frame grab from video, robots walk across the floor of the University of Michigan’s Ford Motor Co Robotics Building, in Ann Arbor, Mich. The four-storey, $75-million, 134,000-square-foot complex has three floors that house classrooms and research l
In a frame grab from video, robots walk across the floor of the University of Michigan’s Ford Motor Co Robotics Building, in Ann Arbor, Mich. The four-storey, $75-million, 134,000-square-foot complex has three floors that house classrooms and research labs for robots that fly, walk, roll and augment the human body.
Professor Anthony Clayton
Professor Anthony Clayton

This is the seventh in a series of eight articles looking at the ways that the world will change between now and 2050 and analysing the implications for Jamaica’s future.

In 2050 there will be six billion in the world’s workforce, of whom five billion will be doing jobs that do not exist today. The nations that educate their children and train their graduates for that future will prosper; the ones that cling to old ideas and structures are preparing for poverty.

It is particularly important to strengthen scientific and technical capacity, produce graduates that can increase the productivity and competitiveness of businesses and create new enterprises, and develop a trained, skilled workforce. At present, 70 per cent of Jamaica’s workforce has had little formal training, which has a disastrous effect on productivity.

This will require significant public and private investment, as current rates of spending on research and education in Jamaica are low by international standards. Any country that invests less than 0.5 per cent of its GDP in research and development is unlikely to become a world centre of innovation, and none of the Caribbean nations meet this target.

However, any investment in education, training and research capacity has to have a clear strategic focus if it is to have the necessary transformative effect. There is little point in training graduates to work in dying industries. It is, however, essential to increase the supply of trained, skilled labour in the ‘sunrise’ business areas that could transform productivity and prospects. It is therefore important to develop a clear understanding of where the growth opportunities will be in future.

The educational system itself will have to undergo extensive reform. Many traditional teaching universities have high fixed cost structures, so cannot reduce their fees, administrative costs are escalating, productivity gains have plateaued, the pandemic has eaten into revenues and shrunk the market for graduates, the number of student defaults is rising and the economic returns on a university education are falling. In the United Kingdom, for example, a university degree used to be the route to a well-paid job, but about 20 per cent of students today would have been financially better off if they had not gone to university.


Universities will have to adapt quickly if they are to survive. Some will become entirely virtual institutions for teaching purposes, channelling streaming videos instead of lectures and hosting discussions online. The majority of student dormitories, lecture theatres and other campus buildings (apart from research facilities) will be redundant. Costs of online operation are much lower and the online environment is far more competitive, so fees will be minimal. Universities will make money only if they can deliver a high-quality learning experience to millions of students from all parts of the world. There are new entrants into the sector, private and non-profit education companies offering tailored educational and training products free or at minimal cost. Many programmes are already completely free, and some of the interactive online packages are now so good that students are learning the material in half the time that they take in the classroom. For the first time in history, cheap, efficient and high-quality education is becoming universally available.

Many universities will not survive this transition. Universities have dominated the market for qualifications for a very long time, but dominant companies can be destroyed by a single disruptive innovation, where someone finds a way to make a complicated and expensive product simpler and cheaper. The innovators come in to the market, usually at the low end, and expand rapidly. The incumbents don’t initially see them as competition, but find that they are losing the mass market and retreat into premium products. However, the innovators keep adding value and reducing cost, move up the quality chain and compete in the premium market as well. The incumbents are then trapped in the top end of the market, where there is not enough volume to sustain them all.

In an online world, the competition between universities also becomes universal, and the competition will be won by the universities with the strongest global brands, the most advanced research programmes and the best management of the online experience. They are best-placed to become the dominant global providers, with millions of enrolled students. Boutique (small, specialised) universities may also do well, with areas of expertise that are hard for others to match. The small universities could become local colleges, focusing on supporting their communities with foundational programmes and courses at sub-degree level, oriented to the needs of local employers. The most vulnerable universities will be those in the middle, not strong enough to break into the top tier and too big to become local colleges. Some of the universities in this group also have the weakest finances, with the worst ratio of fixed costs and debt to income, and will be exposed to competitive pressure on both sides. It is estimated that about half of the universities and colleges in the United States could disappear, and the percentage will be higher in countries that don’t have as many strong universities. The global online education market was worth about US$19 billion in 2019, but is projected to be worth about US$350 billion by 2025 as students migrate online for cheaper, better education, and the rapid loss of market share will be fatal for a number of incumbent universities. About one-third of the colleges in the United States were already in deficit before the coronavirus pandemic, and they will be in much weaker positions now.


Degree structures will also change. The idea that you can acquire all the skills that you need for your career in a couple of years at university will be replaced by a lifelong approach to learning, where people will take a single short course when they need to upgrade their skills. These courses will be constantly updated to stay abreast of technological changes and the needs of the workforce, and there will be greater emphasis on learning how to apply knowledge in a work environment. Universities will work closely with incubators and established firms to stimulate ideas, solve problems and move innovative solutions rapidly into commercial development. Some universities have already moved away from degrees organised by disciplinary subject and are now focusing on new hybrid degrees that are in high demand by employers. In future, there will be fewer graduates in biology or business studies, and more in combinations such as ‘biomimetics and business’.

The next few years will present unprecedented opportunities and challenges to educational systems. The tertiary institutions that survive will be the ones with effective leadership and competent management, multiple revenue streams, several areas of world-class expertise and a coherent strategy for the way forward.

Anthony Clayton is professor of Caribbean Sustainable Development. Send feedback to