New Ideas in Higher Education

Someone told me, new ideas in Higher Education do not work. He has a point - even Gerald Grant and David Riesman conclude along the same lines in their The Perpetual Dream: Reform and Experiment in the American College - and paradoxically, the worse the crisis of educational exclusion or irrelevance in a country, the more difficult it is to introduce new ideas. The reason perhaps is that though in theory Higher Education is an enabler of social mobility, in practise, in many places, it is only a system of perpetuating social privilege. And, hence, even those who seek to climb the social ladder approach Higher Education with a conforming attitude, trying to disrupt everything else but not change the way to the gate of disruption. The lack of venturesome consumption, as Amar Bhide will put it, makes new enterprise and innovation extremely difficult in education.

It does not indeed mean that businesses do not make money in Higher Education. They do, and lots of it. But, paradoxically for business theorists, the conventional ones make more money than the disruptive one. Higher Education remains a land-grab business, where money and influence still trump ideas and technologies, at least at the outset. Someone investing in education in India tells me that while his investments in ed-tech became a baggage, he made his money from a face-to-face coaching business he invested in. Not new ideas, but financial muscle, won him the game.

But, then, it is a generalisation that new ideas do not make money in Higher Education. My favourite example is certification business. This is one area where private For-Profit businesses (and business units of large companies) have been extremely successful. Not many educationalists study certification businesses because they do not consider them to be part of Higher Education, and not many business theorists look at certification as it is too specific an industry for them to generalise the practises. One may, however, draw lessons from the certification businesses because they did not focus on disrupting the Higher Education sector, which is tough, and instead focused on creating a new, mass segment for themselves, delivering the same outcomes - higher order abilities and social mobility - that Higher Education promises to do.

Now, one may think that certification businesses are difficult to create, and that these are past their prime. Both of these impressions may be wrong. It is not just IBM and Ciscos of the world that create certifications. A number of smaller companies created successful certification programmes and executed them well. They needed to create the right partnership with employers, and focus on specific and emergent skill areas, but most of them have done reasonably well once they have done so. And, indeed, the certification game is not over yet. Its newest avatar may be the Micro-degrees and Nano-degrees that we are talking about, as well as all the coding boot camps that are becoming such a rage. 
In this, there are great lessons how to create new offerings in a sector, which seems laden with conservative customers. Part of it is already tried-and-tested design research. Do not ask the customer whether they would like a new idea in education, because they would not, but observe what they are doing education for - and find an easier way to deliver the same outcome. Millions of students who go to university today go there for job, career, social mobility, and one could find a better way of doing this through a certification-type programme. Part of it also to understand the regulatory hurdles - education systems are anti-innovation because it is often closely and ineptly regulated - and to bypass them completely. Many disruptive Higher Ed businesses stumble (including one I created in the past) because they spend too much time and energy focused on conforming to the regulatory game, only to find out that once they are into that game, their students want them to play the game as it is played, with ranking, research and all that. It is actually the other way around - understanding niche sectors, mapping the consumers and coming up with offerings that deliver!

These ideas are not new, but many people miss it because they focus too closely on the dynamics of the education sector and get consumed in the talk. However, there are interesting new ventures to watch if one could afford to look into the periphery (one maxim of innovation is that it always happens in the periphery). For example, the Micro-degrees and Coding boot camps are already collaborating with established universities, keeping two sides of the bargain. It is easy, all universities in the world have some kind of system to recognise prior learning and create a credit structure for the same. With this combination, one could create a structure of certification plus a job plus lifelong learning leading to top-up with an university degree, which may present significant advantages for students over their peers who would rather follow the convention. Strangely, the investors would not usually back these ideas - and back ones trying to play the degree game instead - because they have the same limited perspective about how Higher Education should be changed and miss the lessons from certification industry altogether.


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