Future Proofing Universities: we need a paradigm shift to survive digital disruption and the corporatisation of Higher Education.

Recently, Dr Nick Barter, Academic Director of Griffith Online, portrayed universities as elephants in his presentation, Crossing the Digital Divide, at EduTECH 2016.

An elephant is an apt metaphor given common public perceptions — enormous, impressive, slow moving, vastly different to other animals in their ecosystem, long lived and highly intelligent; also an endangered species.

The lumbering bureaucracy and legacy business processes that universities have been built on make it difficult for them to adapt to digital disruption and vulnerable to agile new players in the education landscape.

With fee deregulation looming in Australia, the continued push for ‘reform that support[s] the Government’s vision of a stronger, more sustainable system of higher education’ is driving a move to treat our students like customers. Whilst this approach can be helpful in improving the student experience as they navigate their way through our complex and antiquated business processes and customer relationship management (CRM) systems can be used by university IT departments to provide the kinds of data and business functionality required for excellent programs such as the QUT Student Success Program, treating students as customers is problematic on multiple levels.

Treating students as customers reduces education to a business transaction, as if we can guarantee a transfer of knowledge or skill to a student as long as they pay their fees. This both disempowers students and sets them up with false expectations.

Part of our job as educators is to develop students into self-motivated lifelong learners and critical thinkers who will help solve society’s current and future wicked problems. Feedback from students that focuses on wanting more ‘direct delivery of content’ and demands that we ‘drop all the bells and whistles and just teach us what is on the exam’ are almost always delivered in the same sentence as a claim of not receiving ‘value for money’ from their education and a refusal to take ownership of their own learning — a position deeply set in exchange theory ideas of ‘the customer’. Students need to take ownership of their learning and understand that it will not always be an easy process. Deep learning requires students to work through cognitive dissonance and construct new understandings. At the neurological level, learning occurs when students break old and make new links between cells within the brain, a reorganisation process known as neuroplasticity. Students cannot sit and passively receive an education. The process of learning is not something anyone can package up and sell to a customer — it is a process we can support them through by reducing distractions and unnecessary cognitive load, but learning is a complex and sometimes difficult process students need to own and actively engage in.

Positioning of students as customers tends reinforce the expectation that students can drive the content and assessment of their learning. Whilst I am all for student centred learning, at some point we (both universities and professional registration bodies) need to enforce standards if our qualifications (either long, degree based ones or unbundled micro-learning) are to have any validity. Students who see themselves as customers are more likely to demand ‘customer service’ in the form of adjustment of marks or alternate assessments that fail to ensure that students actually achieve the learning outcomes of their courses. Research supports my personal experience in this area: findings presented at the Society for Industrial and Organisational Psychology Conference in 2009 (Finney and Gillespie) showed that “a student who holds students-as-customer perceptions is also likely to hold attitudes and engage in behaviours that are not conducive to success as a student. Students who perceive themselves as customers of the university are more likely to complain and to feel entitled to receiving positive outcomes from the university; they are not, however, any more likely to be involved in their education.”

Focusing purely on the economic role of universities and treating them like a business that ‘sells’ education, ignores the social and cultural roles of our academic institutions.

Geoffrey Boulton, then Vice-Principal of the University of Edinburgh, wrote that universities primary concern was useful knowledge, but not only immediately applicable and marketable knowledge; he argued that universities are a resource for an unknown future. Universities are not only producers of skilled workers with credible credentials and contributors to innovation, they support both the preservation and the transformation of the political, social and cultural aspects of societies, they are agents of social justice and mobility, and they contribute heavily to present and future social and cultural vitality. If we, as educators, bend to the pressure to treat our students as customers, we are in danger of dereliction of these duties to society in order to keep those customers happy in the short term on top of failing in our core responsibilities as educators to co-create learning opportunities with students. In sum, treating students as customers is fraught with danger because a university education is not, after all, a business transaction.

If we don’t treat our students as customers, but we don’t want to be seen as unresponsive, archaic and increasingly irrelevant institutions in a digitally disrupted education marketplace, how then, should we position our relationship with our students? I propose adopting of some key principles from Human Capital Management (HCM). The idea of human capital comes from American social economist Gary Becker and refers to the knowledge, habits and attributes of people that enable them to be produce economic value. In recent years, many businesses have moved from more traditional ideas of human resource management as a suite of related but separate functions such as recruitment, training and development, pay and benefits, and performance management, to a more integrated approach of human capital management because of the development of comprehensive enterprise resource planning systems that incorporate the management of the processes of acquiring, training, managing, and retaining employees so that they contribute effectively to an organisation. HCM from individual employees’ perspective includes important elements of workplace development like induction, mentoring, evaluation and performance management as well as formal training and professional development. HCM from the organisations’ perspective includes applicant management through recruitment and selection, on-boarding, employee collaboration, succession management, leadership development and workforce planning. There are financial transactions within a HCM framework, but they are not the core focus, just as the financial transaction should not be the core focus of a student’s role in university education. Effective human capital management increases the capability, productivity and well-being of both the employee and the organisation and contributes to a positive organisational culture. If we are able to extrapolate that framework to a higher education setting, adopting a HCM approach to our students could increase the capability, productivity and well-being of both the student and the university and contribute to a more positive institutional culture.

Just as no two employees are identical, no two students are identical. If we shift to a HCM paradigm and work towards empowering individual students’ learning careers we can move towards models like those expounded by Stanford 2025 concurrently and quickly. Imagine a university admissions process that wasn’t based only academic marks, but was more like applying for a job where you showed how you met the relevant criteria for becoming a student at the university. Students could be given a common ‘on-boarding’ and on demand micro-learning that teaches how to be a student at their university — which includes familiarisation with self service administrative processes, IT services, information resources, learning support and other university services and opportunities like counselling, career development and student societies. On-boarding would be followed by a personalised induction that would assess the student’s learning and social needs and goals and help them develop a relevant learning career path. Just like employees, the pace and direction of progression would be controlled by the student, with the organisation — the university — providing guidance and opportunities for learning career planning, mentoring, goal setting and performance management, and measurement and evaluation of skills and knowledge that allow progression. Stanford 2025’s Open Loop University model could be the norm, because part of the ‘benefits and conditions’ of a HCM paradigm for students is the ability to easily take leave or adjust study loads in order to balance working or personal life with study. As both students and the university become more accustomed to a student driven HCM paradigm, the semester based calendar and all the artificial pressure it places on both students and teachers, would start to disappear. Students could begin and complete unbundled content modules online at their own pace and book themselves into regularly scheduled peer learning, teacher facilitated learning and university monitored assessment sessions. Students could then push their results to their learning career portfolio when they have successfully completed an item on the personalised learning career plan they negotiated with the university during performance management and learning career planning sessions. Paced Education could be ubiquitous because students could progress through the different stages of the learning career path as quickly or as slowly as suits their personal needs and goals. Purpose Learning is possible because students could tap into the social and cultural life of the university and the researchers who work there through the mentoring program and project learning opportunities or receive credit for work based projects. Additionally students could change and develop their learning purpose over time, just as most employees today change and develop their career purpose as they progress. Axis Flip could be the foundation of the university because our learning and teaching spaces would have evolved to be far more participatory and collaborative, like our current workplaces, and students could be required to demonstrate competencies in ethics, critical thought, creativity, entrepreneurship, quantitative and qualitative research, digital literacy, communication and collaboration as they progress through their career, regardless of their discipline of study. Evidence of these skills could be stored in the students’ learning career portfolio and the meta data from student portfolios is used to suggest possible learning and professional career progression opportunities, such as leadership training or emerging roles that align with students’ skill sets. Ideas currently seen as radical innovations to the university system and depicted as twenty years into the future are achievable via a shift to a HCM paradigm and currently mature cloud based HCM systems replace current university business systems (with minor adaptations). As technology solutions like open data with object level security, open badges and even blockchain mature, students will be able to selectively share their learning career portfolios with employers and add external skill and knowledge certifications to their portfolio while still a part of the university community.

Leveraging the synergies of research and teaching that are only available in universities to achieve powerful and lasting social and cultural impacts for individuals and societies, as well as the economic outputs of delivering workers who are adaptive, competent and intellectually bold in return for government investment is a way for universities not only to survive digital disruption and deregulation, but to survive the ‘students as customers’ transactional view of education that could easily see us replaced by content delivery and assessment AI systems within ten years.

Shifting to a HCM paradigm and focussing on supporting and empowering students’ lifelong learning careers gives universities an opportunity to show their value proposition to both students and the wider community and leverage those synergies now, not in the distant future.

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