Does Higher Education Need Disruption?

All investors love disruption. This is the new mantra, a sales pitch that can't be denied: The dot-com era's 'dent in the universe' has lately become 'disruption'.

Clayton Christensen should be worried. The history of management ideas is replete with examples of oversell. And, indeed, oversold ideas die quickly thereafter. The insight of disruption is a great idea, but when it is slapped around on everything, it loses its meaning. One would suspect that such a disruptive moment has now come to disruption.

One case in point is the discussion about higher education. Everyone wants to disrupt higher education. Even the great and the good have caught up with the 'D' word. But wasn't Christensen's original insight about low quality, low price products disrupting the market leaders because they had overshot the customers' requirements and become unnecessarily expensive? Anyone for low quality education? Can Silicon Valley beat the price points education is available in the developing countries, where 'non-users' really are? 

One can say that you don't have to use 'disruption' in strict academic sense, but that's where the problem starts. An idea stops being an idea when its contents are emptied and the word is used as a label. That's what is happening to the 'D' word, and nowhere more than in Education. 

The question to ask therefore is : Does Higher Education need disruption?

There are lots of complaints about higher education - that it does not serve the professed goals (whatever they are), it perpetuates privilege rather than creating possibilities, the infrastructure is often poor etc. But, indeed, all these complaints point to a need for improvement, rather than disruption. In fact, the problem of non-use in higher education is closely linked to underperformance - if education delivered what it was supposed to, the problem of non-use will perhaps go away.

This gets more complicated when the For-Profits of the Western world attempt to 'disrupt' the education in developing countries. There is some justification for 'disruption' because there is evidence of non-use. There is not enough capacity in some countries, and other places it is plain crazy, like the entire country of Liberia (more precisely, its students) failed to get through university admissions examination in 2013 (see story). Indeed, there are people who can't go to the university. This makes a good case (at last!) for disruption.

However, this disruption must come from within than without. Disruption, if we stick to what we know of it, comes from the lower end of the spectrum, when someone comes up and offers a solution to mop up the demand at the lower end. This can happen in these countries through their non-higher education training providers, who may create a cheap and accessible solution, but not Higher Ed, and serve these students. The way 'disruption' is supposed to work is that once these providers have got the mass, they climb the respectability level and start challenging the established players. However, the current Wall Street formula of disruption, that some Western University will descend on the masses with an overpriced course and turn the non-user into users is stretching the idea too far.

The disruption in Higher Education in developing countries, therefore, may not come from Western For-profits, but their own low priced providers who are trying to offer alternatives to Higher Ed. Often these are low quality providers: In fact, in most cases, they are fairly low quality, which is indeed the hallmark of disruption. The potential disruption of Higher Ed is supposed to come from its fringe, from the likes of Notting Hill College (website), which offers a plethora of programmes at a very cheap cost across the gulf and middle east, which is really an Egyptian entity with an improbable English name [or, Eton University (website), its sister entity, a non-existent university, offering degrees no one will recognise]. Of course, all players with disruptive potential may not disrupt, for lack of vision or strategic sophistication. There are some who will give in to the easy charm of selling certification and will not have appetite for global conquest. But the others, like UTS Global (website), which does online skills certifications outside university programmes, may eventually go on to become more serious players once they have sorted out the quality of their programmes.

One can possibly argue that the disruption idea isn't applicable in education. This is because the degrees are often the markers of social privilege than any commensurable measurement of ability. Its social value makes it a luxury good of a sort, which may operate under slightly different norms than those which offer pure utilitarian outcomes. This is a subject to be debated, but from a pure business standpoint, higher education and degrees may be considered two different product categories, one of which may be less susceptible to disruption.

Christensen Institute's latest paper (See here) does not make any such distinction, indeed. But this may be a detail worth debating about, rather than slapping the label of 'disruption' on anything and everything.


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