This is a moment of truth for Higher Education

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Whether you’re a President, Vice Chancellor or Business School Dean there is little out there to comfort you just now. COVID has asked some very big questions and it would seem few, if any HE leaders have the answer. In fact it may be fair to argue that the pandemic has finally pushed HE to face into the strategic, if not for some the existential issue that most institutions have preferred to ignore for some years.

The problem for any product that becomes one for mass consumption is that it becomes increasingly difficult to justify an inherited business model based on exclusivity.

The response over the last twenty or so years has been for the more prestigious institutions to try and emulate the rise of the global soccer franchise and retain exclusivity by shifting from national champions to becoming ‘global leaders’. Primarily this has been achieved through building research-rich faculties that in turn attracted students from all over the world. The consequences for university costs and fees have been significant but as long as exclusivity (partly defined by constrained physical and human resources) could be justified and potential students bought the brand proposition, then the business model worked.

With a few exceptions, this period of expansion has not come from any great insight into potential students as customers, but from a belief that product excellence in itself was sufficient to attract students. Indeed, some of the feedback from more recent quality surveys would suggest that customer experience has not featured at all in the priorities of institutional leaders.

The university proposition of a collegiate community learning through lecture, reading and small group challenge hasn’t changed since 1950s. The reality however is nothing like it. Even the most exclusive now look more like processing plants than artisan workshops and to maximise numbers more and more is delivered through digital technology and often through the aegis of adjunct faculty — professional teachers not researchers who are paid by the session.

Despite this shift to learning as a commodity, the rise of the student as customer has been resisted — as a consequence, when customer loyalty and a reputation for customer centricity is a core requirement for survival, many institutions are facing hostility, suspicion and calls for repayment of fees from students less than impressed with their experience over the last five months or plans for the forthcoming academic year.

As a result, today the biggest question facing every major HE institution is will the students come? If they don’t then something significant will have to change.

There is no doubt that Higher Education can be a force for good: from technology innovation and climate science to business ethics and the development of a vaccine for COVID-19, university research is transforming the world in which we live. However, this isn’t why the vast majority of 18 or even 22 year olds sign up for a taught programme. They don’t even sign up to become better educated: they sign up because they believe it gives them a better chance of a job.

Outside of the professions, employability skills are not often knowledge based and nor do they come from the classroom or the library: they come from the application of critical thinking to intellectual or practical challenges. Often they are skills that come from social interaction with peers, teachers, sports coaches and administrators, rather than the content of the education itself. Something that an online-only world is less able to deliver.

Increasingly, as I got to the end of my time as a Business School Dean I believed that we were at risk of imparting knowledge that was going to be out of date by the time our students had graduated. Today’s world needs young people to have a mindset and the personal skills to want to work together to ensure that our planet has a tolerable future. They will need to understand the potential and the limits of new technologies and have a good grasp of key ethical questions that they will face as the confront the dilemmas that have been framed by the injudicious actions of their parents and grandparents.

Online or blended solutions being grabbed at by Higher Education are not a harbinger of the future — they are solutions that have been around for over 20 years. They can only offer short-term sticking plaster unless they are accompanied by some much more radical thinking. That thinking has to address these questions:

  • Is there merit in separating out genuine ground-breaking research (as opposed to scholarship) from teaching young people to enable them to face the challenges of the future? Will that open up higher education further and faster to the advantage of more of the world’s population?
  • With the demographic shift to an older and less productive population is undergraduate eduction better delivered via ‘learn whilst you earn’ solutions that create wealth and reduce long-term debt for the wealth creators?
  • Does this in turn give us the opportunity to review whether there is a role for graduate schools aimed at post experience education to keep mid and late career workers current and able to continue to grow?

Whatever the course of the current pandemic, Higher Education’s long-term survival depends on a willingness to envisage a completely different future and to think about itself from the perspective of its customers — learners, research funders, businesses and governments.

These are long-term questions but decisions made now could define how successful, or otherwise, Higher Education institutions will be as the future evolves. However far it moves, one thing is clear: institutions that invest in better understanding their market now, both prospective and current customers, are far more likely to navigate successfully than those who continue to take a ‘producer-centric’ view.

Building insight and a willingness to use smart e-commerce methodologies to optimise the current proposition to potential students is already producing some significant results in at least one UK ‘Russell Group’ university in challenging times. Regardless of your view of the future, a better understanding of today will offer opportunities to weather what promises to be a highly uncertain next few years.