Higher Education As A Business

I have been involved in the ugly end of the Higher Education - For-profits - for too long to not to detect the puzzle that lies at the heart of Higher Education as a business. Good Higher Education, if we overcome the cynicism to believe that there is such a thing (and overcome the claim that Higher Education is a mechanism to perpetuate privilege, and nothing else), needs elements such as a community, a gift culture, a long term vision and high levels of trust, which are not common in the business world. The investment world, which gets involved in owning and running Higher Education institutions, is really at the far end of the spectrum of values from what makes good education, and while they claim to reward innovative companies, they like regimented Higher Education, and while they want Google to be more college-like, they want college to be more like a factory. Recently, Professor Malcolm Gillies, the recently retired Vice Chancellor of London Metropolitan University, argued that the City (which is the shorthand for investing world in London) should learn from Academia's Slow Values (read his essay here), a suggestion that will be dismissed out of hand by the new Czars of Higher Education. However, what values matter come to the fore as For-Profits are allowed greater legitimacy, and Governments increasingly believe that getting businesses involved in Higher Education is the solution to expand Higher Education and solve the problem of Middle Class jobs. 

However, the problem is only getting bigger because the nature of Higher Education business remains directly at odds with the investment approach of the Higher Education Investor. And, this is poorly understood because this is such a contested issue - no serious researcher or commentator of Higher Education would ever examine For-Profits with an open mind, and the For-Profits and their investors would just be dismissive about what the academicians say. Caught in the middle are indeed people who wants to create new Higher Education institutions that innovate and move with time, and can only find money to do so from the investing world. In the absence of an unified theory of what makes Higher Education work, failing For-Profits become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Indeed, the ambition of For-Profits is to create a new type of university, but it is almost always self-defeating as a model. For example, most For-Profits claim that they exist to prepare people for the changing nature of work and careers, and yet, they must market themselves as easy avenues for yesterdays jobs, because these are only ones their prospective students have any ideas about. Their business models stand on minimising human interaction and contact, running directly against the serendipitous nature of human learning, and their focus, dictated by the logic of investment, on the outcome rather than the process of education denude the experience of the possibilities of chance encounters, detours and accidental knowledge. The oxymoron of result-oriented research should be more apparent, but the whole For-Profit teaching approach, focused on if-you-do-this-you-will-get-that ensures that the gift culture, of sharing knowledge and experience, of being of assistance to other people, is effectively undermined. And, while this industrialised process may produce industrial age machine operators, we are so far past that time and requirement that For-Profits only worsen the existential crisis of the middle class.

The other side of the coin is, of course, the Government bureaucracies that run public institutions, but operate with essentially the same business logic of measurability and control, in a time-limited way. The public institutions, therefore, face the other side of the same problem - there is nothing educational about a bureaucratic institution. The only concerns become Sex for students, parking for faculty and sports for the alumni (Clark Kerr's words - the last one only uniquely applicable to the United States) - and indeed, the culture of the faculty room become all too Machiavellian to entertain any idealism about education.

One may indeed point out that the idea of the college as a community of scholars and students united in the pursuit of knowledge is just an ideal, and such a college may have never existed. However, the point is not one of tradition but one of appropriateness - if we believe that the collegiate ideal is good for innovative work and attempt to replicate it at our businesses, why should we not attempt to create learning institutions on similar models? While we recognise the value of collaborative work, a gift culture, long term thinking in our most cutting edge enterprises and value idealism in world changing social organisation, why do we permit our cynicism to let our colleges degenerate so precipitously? And, since I invoke the accusation of cynicism, I must clarify that I see it everywhere in Higher Education. The faculty room culture in public institutions, a combination of patronising highhandedness and indulgent self-centeredness, is as guilty of cynicism as the charade of academic values put up by For-Profits with pretentious buildings (or virtual storefronts, as is becoming more common), luminous but never-present advisory panels and degree parade of the adjuncts who are all too busy simply surviving. This model simply does not work - it does not even make money when the subsidies and state support is withdrawn - and yet, all other ideas, any idea, is rejected out of hand, by both sides of the divide.

Higher Education has a future, simply because an uneducated universe is a self-destructive prospect. The need for innovation in Higher Education is urgent, but the solution is not just to embrace For-Profits (or reject it). The innovation would take a new form of business, socially engaged, long term and informed by the right values. Instead of just watering down quality standards and letting For-profits slip in, the Governments need to look elsewhere - innovating governance structures, which let such institutions raise money and operate effectively. Higher Education can be a business, but it is a different kind of business - a point we missed all along!




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