Innovation in Higher Education: A Difficult Business

Datuk Dr Paul Chan, President of Help University in KL, is a remarkable man. As someone who has built a successful university from ground up in what some of my English academic colleagues call as the Silicon Valley of Higher Education, he has a close first hand view of what innovation in Higher Education looks like. Yet, when the real Silicon Valley is waking up to Higher Education, President Chan remains remarkably anti-hype: No one wants innovation in Higher Education, because everyone is after standards and prestige, he said.

Just before I met Datuk Chan last November, Help University caused a flutter in Western media, and with their partners in Southern New Hampshire University, by giving out an Honorary Doctorate to Kim Jong Un. Going by this, they are certainly not orthodox, nor a stickler of other people's standards. In fact, a part of our conversation was about the standards: In what seemed a continuation of views aired by Dr Mahathir Mohamad decades earlier, Datuk Chan talked about how Western standards continue to define all thinking and all institutions, making the claims of the rise of the East a bit of an illusion.

Indeed, I did find Help University somewhat different from the standard Private universities that I have seen elsewhere in Asia. There was the customary focus on vocational subjects - I visited their enormous Culinary schools and talked about Accounting degrees closely mapped to Western Professional Qualifications - but a poster on the arrival hall boasted the new additions to their library, among them English language biographies of political leaders such as Lenin. It would turn out to have a much broader list of subjects than the narrow Engineering and Business focus that one sees in the universities in South Asia, for example. The list of their Western partners were impressive, including an online programme from University of Derby, University of London International Programmes,  as well as the SNHU, which is some sort of a vanguard of innovation in Higher Ed in the US. As an university which built its name serving the ethnic Chinese community in Malaysia, just as the others served variably the ethnic Chinese and Indian communities when Malaysian public institutions almost exclusively served the 'Bhumiputra', such attempts at trying different formats were also remarkable.

Someone familiar with the affairs of Help University told me that they had tried many partnerships in the past, and not all the partnerships worked as well. But this, in fact, confirmed my impression of an university constantly on the move, contrary to most others that I usually see. My conversations with Indian universities and business schools are often intensely frustrating because one could see that they don't really want to try anything new. Some of the bigger Indian universities have as many foreign partners as Help would have, but they are collecting MoUs in the bid to stop anything new happening in their market rather than the other way around. Most such institutions serve a narrow local market and quite happy with that: Unlike Help, they have few ambitions and fewer attempts to break new grounds.

When Karan Khemka and Parag Khanna proclaimed that unleashing For-Profit Universities in Higher Education in the developing countries would bring about a productivity revolution (see the HBR article here), their views were based on a mistaken assumption of how For-Profit, and indeed, Private, Higher Education works. The liberal rhetoric of Critical Thinking and Creativity may be well-meaning, but the most important function of Privately funded Higher Education institutions by far is preservation of status quo. The dynamic of Private institutions has so far been to fight out for their own little corner of the market won through regulatory processes. The innovation they have brought in focused far more on the costs, stripping out whatever was deemed inessential for the grant of a degree, than in creating better learning. By the logic of the stock-market, the For-Profit education embraced the cheap-and-cheerful demand-absorbing end of Higher Education rather than attempting to bring in any productivity revolution.

Universities such as Help notwithstanding (its constant search may be powered by an atypical visionary such as Datuk Chan), innovation has not been a mainstream function of any Educational institution. One must not undermine the various innovations in curriculum, teaching and student interaction by individual educators, but the institutional structure of Private Higher Education has so far been more factory-like than even the modern factories. Despite their 'challenger' positions, with Higher Education in most countries dominated by large, high prestige, publicly funded institutions, not many Private institutions will have anything akin to a Research and Development function; the closest equivalent, a department for External Relations in some universities, is overtly concerned with getting more clients for existing programmes rather than exploring new ideas.

I could have taken Datuk Chan's skepticism about Educational Innovation as a criticism of my own attempts to create a new model of education, but I chose not to; he is indeed a pioneer of sorts who understands the trade better than anyone around. Besides, the fact that Help University itself is now in the middle of an ambitious international education project themselves told me that it is trying to push the boundaries, despite the fact that they are coming up a brand new campus shortly which will commit them even more closely to the traditional model of Higher Education. My lessons from this interaction was the need to think about the balances - between core customers and global aspiration, between tradition and innovation, of the interplay of standards and local demands - that must underpin any innovation in Higher Education.


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