Robots are coming for Private Higher Ed

Robots are coming for private higher ed.

It is usual to toast the rapid automation of work at investor conferences, in the hope that this would break the State monopolies on higher ed and usher in a new era of education innovation. What's left unspoken is that the public higher ed will eventually die, underfunded and unloved, under the sheer weight of its bureaucracy. 

However, the collateral damage in this brave new world may not be public universities, the better of which are far better equipped to handle the coming of the Robots, but the private higher education that has grown rapidly worldwide over the last twenty years. Indeed, the same investors have billions of dollars at stake in private higher ed and wouldn't be pleased if the first casualty of the very disruption they celebrate costs them a bomb. 

But this seems likely for two reasons. First, the impact of automation will be most felt in the jobs that involve narrow specialisations and process-based jobs, exactly the kind private higher ed usually focuses on. Second, the bits of public university life that private higher education looks to cut out - tenured faculty, research, humanities, intellectual commitment - will exactly be the kind of things the new models of higher education will demand. In short, robotic education is most at threat from the robots and the golden goose of private higher education, an education that consisted of certain simple steps to profit, is likely to lose its lustre.

Of course, there are exceptions and not all private higher ed are the same. But the extraordinary growth of the sector in recent years rode on expansion of IT and service jobs and growth of global mobility. Most institutions in the sector today are of the 'demand-absorbing' variety, those that took in millions of students from the aspirational middle class from China, India and Africa, who do not have the necessary finances or social capital to make it to the coveted public institutions. Despite all the question-marks about the value of a university education, this demand has continued to grow, so far. This is very segment where the impact of an university education is least visible in terms of income gains and social mobility, an educational sub-prime. But this is also the segment where promises are easy to make and dreams are easy to sell, and therefore, private higher ed has continued to thrive in this segment.

This is like a bad addiction, however. The indications are there: People are dropping out of colleges in large numbers, but because these drop-outs usually don't go on to found billion dollar companies, this trend is hardly remarked upon. The global mobility, politically toxic for governments in the destination countries, is slowing, and the jobs that immigrants usually took are increasingly being done by the robots. New jobs are being created, at the higher reaches of the skills spectrum, completely out of the bound for the students from mass market institutions. That simple thesis - that ageing countries will need skilled immigrants - is becoming increasingly false, thanks to automation.

There is no simple way out of this trap. Several years ago, I spent several years of my life trying to make a niché institution out of a mass-market one, and I know there are all kinds of challenges, not least the force of habit, that come in the way. It doesn't help that private higher ed is often driven by individual entrepreneurs, whose life perspectives define the institutional planning horizon: They know that the revolution is coming but expect this to happen over long term beyond their lifetime. But, of course, the technological change is already here and this is more like that of a strategic planner in the 90s who missed the Internet. 

But I am not claiming that automation renders the private higher ed sector useless. There is more to the private higher ed than lean operations and efficiency. To start with, these institutions are often smaller and more responsive to their learners, treating them really as customers (unlike the public universities, which treat government as their preeminent customer). They are nimble in curriculum innovation, closer as they are to the demands of the recruiters, though these innovations can sometimes be poorly thought-out, inadequately resourced and opportunistically implemented. Their concept of 'quality', defined by the harsh realities of the competitive market, is closer to the lived realities of aspirational students than the public university's approach to it, the latter being defined by privilege and monopoly power. The private higher education institutions can play a significant role in the time of social change and economic transformation just as they did during the industrial revolution, provided the institutions concerned become strategically aware and committed to the dynamic of the local and global labour markets.

Which institutions survive this shake-up will be defined by their strategic agility. Just as we emerge from the pandemic, changes are inevitable in Higher Education: Campuses will become unattractive and uneconomical, online learning will become normalised and people's expectations will expand beyond just degrees. Some private higher ed institutions will emerge from the pack, harnessing the power of technology and longer-term perspectives to disrupt their own convenient business models. Instead of staying in familiar domains, they will embrace the new models of work, translating the formats into models of educational engagement. With innovative use of technology, they will, more than regulation obsessed public universities, widen the access and yet maintain deep engagement, a task in which their public counterparts have so far failed. They will look beyond sales prowess and bring innovation to all aspects of student experience, including admission and enrolment, design and delivery of the curriculum, student services, career counselling and placement, treating the students as individuals and addressing the needs of their whole person. 

In short, coming of robots may destroy private higher ed sector as it stands today, but those institutions it would not destroy, would become stronger.

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