Start up or not to start up, is indeed the critical question. Having now spent almost three years working in and studying about Private Higher Education in the UK, I feel ready to launch my idea of technology-led higher learning network; what is holding me back is the issues related to capital raising and how the things should be structured.
My primary interest is indeed institution building, so ownership issues are somewhat a distraction. However, for the last one year, I have been advised, quite rightly, not to plan to do a start-up, but rather align the whole project with an existing entity. The rationale is straightforward: The project is too ambitious, too complex and may require a large seed capital, and therefore dissuade investors from backing a start-up. This led me to reformat our efforts and sent us on a wild goose chase of finding a suitable platform, the reassurance of a brick-and-mortar college, which, it seemed, most investors are in the look out for. This meant compromising some of our original plans and a significant diversion of efforts, something, with hindsight, I regret doing.
Hindsight is indeed an exact science, but not very useful. When I now reflect back on various conversations I had on the start-up project, I clearly see that I misunderstood the investor concerns. In a way, when they were saying that the project is too complex and ambitious, they were possibly questioning my credentials (and of other people in the team) to pull off such a project. They would have had no such doubts if I spent last several years in the cozy comfort of civil services, or spent a number of years carrying out anonymous tasks in a big name corporate house; but I did just the opposite - spent time in entrepreneurial businesses trying to create and shape innovative products - and this does not fill them with confidence that we can run a business, which is about doing exactly as we did before, of creating and shaping innovative product offering.
This leads to my other point about private equity mindset. With some exceptions, the investment community fails to see that the private higher education business in Britain has reached a point of discontinuity, an inflection point as I frequently refer to this as, and at times like this, a start-up, unencumbered by legacy thinking and baggage of the past, is better placed as a business form than any division of an existing, complex business entity whose business model has just vanished. Indeed, I can quote established business thinking to prove my point - Clayton Christensen would vouch for the value of start-up spirit in pushing ahead with new business models - but such thinking is usually lost on bankers limited to their spreadsheets and rationalized models of risk perception. This is particularly so as in Higher Education, legacy and continuity is seen as valuable assets, unlike areas such as software, where innovation and new thinking is valued over and above everything.
I have a clear view on such thinking. I love this story about Frank Woolworth, who set up his second discount store in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in April 1879 (after his first store in New York failed) and was immediately greeted by a bigger and more established store on the same street with the sign "50 years in business - never failed" on their shop-window. As the story goes, Woolworth responded with a sign on his window "Just Opened - All Fresh Stock!". This may be counter-intuitive in education, where pretending to be old is a good thing and often schools adopt rituals and symbols to make them look medieval: However, I believe that we have reached a point where someone needs to say "New School. No Pretensions: Just Meaningful Education."
I am an optimist after all and believe that the world can be made a better place, and therefore dream about changing the model of education. At this time, For Profit education is mostly a cheap diploma machine, a pretentious business whose only useful social role is produce armies of semi-skilled graduates who feeds the expanding service industry and keeps the skills premium down to a minimum. This is quickly leading the current models of education to irrelevance: This recession, which is showing no signs of abetting and indeed would condemn a generation of graduates to low paid jobs and hopelessness, is likely to throw these issues into limelight and open up new debates on what an education institution should do. Which means discontinuity, and opportunity for Googles and Facebooks of Education industry to emerge.
If all this seems wishful thinking, one should consider the quick proliferation of MOOCs and other online initiatives, Udacity, Coursera, MITx, Minerva Project et al, and see how quickly the education innovators are taking advantage of the enabling technologies and global demand for knowledge. These are perfect examples of how private profit-seeking investment in higher education is actually driving innovation and changing the game: A far cry from me-too tendencies of medieval pretensions, cost spiral and indifferent graduates, these initiatives are based on knowledge and skills (they often don't lead to certification), on courage of fresh thinking and of reviving the education long tail (I am reviving my interest in philosophy and Greek and Roman Mythology on Coursera). What I wish to do is in this tradition of challenging the status quo in education and creating something new, rather than succumbing to the easy charm of creating a diploma mill of some description.
Even if I sound disappointed, this is meant to be a statement of hope, a new start, of clear intentions of committing myself to a life of start-up rather than remaining a prisoner of the stifled thinking. I want to be involved in creating an institution of new thinking, rather than giving in and solely limiting myself to economic opportunity and asset bubble forming around the Higher Education, which is mostly on the basis of a new enclosure of what used to be public sphere into private activity. I have spent enough time looking inside the For-Profit education: I have now reached a breaking point when I would commit myself to turn the model upside down.
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