Ginie Servant, who teaches at the Erasmus University College, did a PhD on the intellectual history of problem-based learning. She is worried about the future of PBL: “Some people feel that the tutor is totally redundant.”

“We are at the point where we must have a fundamental rethink about where we want to go with problem-based learning (PBL),” says Ginie Servant. At the end of last year, she obtained her PhD with an intellectual history of PBL, besides her work as tutor at Erasmus University College. It threatens to become a meaningless marketing ploy, says Servant, aimed at attracting rich students. “This is already happening at some universities in Asia, where they frankly admit that PBL is a means to attract talent from abroad and get accreditations.”

Will nominal become even more normal? Will problem-based learning self-destruct? And how can students be better prepared for a changing labour market? Six experts share their thoughts on what the higher education landscape will look like ten years from now. Read the other predictions on our website or in EM #5.

Main innovation in education

Problem-based learning was one of the main innovations in education after the Second World War. More than five hundred higher education institutions all over the world work with it. Since 2001, increasing numbers of programmes at Erasmus University have introduced this form of education, whereby small groups of students actively work together and have plenty of initiative. The educational principle is that knowledge cannot be transferred, but should be actively acquired. Students then find it easier to understand the material and can apply the acquired knowledge more effectively.

Misunderstanding that PBL doesn't need a tutor

Plenty of advantages, you might say. However, according to Servant, the danger is that PBL is being increasingly pared back. When financial resources are scarce, it is easy to economise by making groups slightly bigger every year. In Servant’s worst scenario, in 2027 we will have tutor groups of over 30 students taught by a student from a higher year. “Or even worse: some people feel that the tutor is totally redundant. I’ve already seen examples of groups without a tutor.”

It hasn’t got that far yet, says Servant, but something will have to change. She appeals for a re-evaluation of teaching. “It’s a misunderstanding that PBL doesn’t need a good tutor. Our brain needs help to structure knowledge. And good education needs a teacher who can get students out of their comfort zone. That isn’t possible if someone has an uncertain temporary contract or if they are appraised on the basis of student evaluations every week.”