Universities are seeing their costs increasing and their income stable or decreasing, as public funding of higher education is put under pressure, and the ability of students to pay for their education is being reduced.
Paradoxically, one of the main reasons for this financial pressure is the increased demand of the product offered. Worldwide, more students want higher education, but the public funding pool remains the same or in many cases less because of public budget deficits. Moreover, the emergent student segments are not as wealthy and not as able to pay for education as the privileged students of the past. Additionally, in recent years the costs of running universities have increased much more than the average wages of those that pay for university education.
There is no easy solution for traditional universities, and one reason is that their offering does not scale very well. Universities can squeeze more students into lecture halls, but the big cost items (land, buildings, graders, supervisors, administration, marketing) are largely proportional to the number of students.
Online universities have entered the market and have been seen as a panacea, but as pointed out in Why the Internet Isn’t Going to End College As We Know It they have not been able to reduce the costs to the students:
“Even with the efficiencies of the internet, education is still a labor-intensive endeavor. Unless your degree program consists of nothing but multiple choice tests that can be graded via computer, you still need instructors who can grade assignments, supervise in-class discussions (even if those discussions happen in a chat room), and help lagging students with the material.”
Nevertheless, even though online universities have not been able to construct competitive offerings yet, it does not mean that they will be unable to do so in the future – or that others will not unbundle the university experience and change the landscape forever.
There is little doubt that higher education is ripe for disruptive innovation.
There are many ways to unbundle the university offering. One suggestion is to see university education as a set of four deliverables, as suggested by Seth Godin in Stop Stealing Dreams:
- Access to information (not perspective or understanding, but access)
- Accreditation/A scarce degree
- Membership in a tribe
- A situation for growth (which is where you’d file perspective and understanding)
With the digital revolution, access to information is free or available at a very low cost, so that stronghold is already broken.
Accreditation is next. In addition to traditional universities, accreditation is likely to be provided by emergent specialist assessors like those that provide accreditation in the areas of quality management systems (e.g. Bureau Veritas) or project management (e.g. Project Management Institute). Alternatively, we will see the rise of networked accreditation like Open Badges.
Social media plays an increasing role when it comes to tribes, and even though physical presence still is important, we are already seeing the rise of online-only tribes – also when it comes to learning and education.
The fourth and final stronghold, A situation for growth, on the other hand, might be tougher to break for online-only services.
There are few autodidakts, and current online technologies – including traditional e-learning and telepresence solutions – have not proven viable in engaging the vast majority of learners.
Most students need a physically present teacher/coach/mentor to ignite their passion and guide them through their education. Or in Seth Godin’s words:
“The role of the teacher in this new setting is to inspire, to intervene, and to raise up the motivated but stuck student”.
The interaction between students and teachers can continue to take place in traditional universities, but we might well see the rise of what today is considered alternative locations for higher education. These could include refurbished libraries, community centers or enhanced learning centers, like the ones in Sweden.
What is required of such learning locations is an internet connection, some basic technology, good spaces to work and collaborate, and the guidance of great teachers that motivate and guide the students on their learning journey. The teachers need to be great facilitators and educators, but not necessarily world-class presenters or entertainers, as those services can be accessed via the web.
Such unbundling will not imply the demise of all universities, but it could enable huge numbers of people – especially in developing countries – to get access to higher education.
This is a reflection of the various tensions in contemporary higher education, and it is based on the readings and interactions from the first week of the Current/Future State of Higher Education (CFHE12) open online course.