Innovation in Higher Education: Public-Private Divide and The T-Skills Question

I have followed the conversation about T-Skills, that a modern professional needs at least one 'deep' skill and several other interests and abilities to complement this - for several years (see my earlier post here). Over the last several years, the idea has gained considerable traction and now has its own 'Summit' (check the last year's videos and details here), as well as gained academic acceptance and popular support. Whether one uses the T metaphor or not, many people are advocating a similar approach. For example, Professor Howard Gardner, in his Five Minds For The Future, argue that the professionals of the future will require a 'Discipline', a native way of thinking and making sense of the world (the deep end of the T), as well as Synthesis, the ability to assimilate information and ideas from various branches of knowledge (the top of the T) - along with Creativity, Diversity and Ethics.

There are several reasons why we are having this conversation, but most important of all is the uncertainty factor, that we accept that the technologies and relationships at work would continue to change, and a person will have several jobs in a lifetime. This means shifting away from Processes and Specialisation - that vision of nail factory of Adam Smith (or of Time and Motion studies of Frederick Taylor, or the assembly lines of Henry Ford) - something that celebrated narrow expertise over everything else. George Bernard Shaw's warning that no one can be a complete specialist in something without being a complete idiot in everything else went unheeded, as breaking down jobs in tiny chunks and employing workers who screwed car seats all their lives, for example, boosted productivity and created opportunity. The Industrial Society needed skills in performing tasks as prescribed, and characters to neatly segregate the professional and the personal and the ability to commit certain hours unwaveringly to performance of a defined activity without necessarily imagining or searching for meaning.

This model is now broken, and we are well into the age when those process jobs have been passed on to robots, who can perform without distraction or emotions. The roles of human beings in work context has changed, and this has now gone beyond factory work and permeated into solid professions such as Accounting (see my post on educating the accountants) and even the new age occupations such as programming. We have a new version of Murphy's Law - All that could be automated will be automated - and this is redefining the common-sense notions of Skills, Professions and Work.

This presents a great opportunity, as well as a great challenge, for Higher Education systems today. Great opportunity, because Higher Education, with its focus on abstract thinking, should be uniquely ready for the emerging needs of broad imagination. This is indeed the reason why various national governments want more people to go to college, and the premium earned by graduates over non-graduates in terms of lifetime income is increasing. But, this comes with a great challenge too, because, over time, disciplinary boundaries have only become stronger in Higher Education, and the cult of publishing has encouraged super-specialisation. The government-mandated imperatives and rewards have encouraged research for the sake of research, and disciplines and sub-disciplines have evolved its own languages and ways of thinking, limiting the space for cross-fertilisation of ideas and conversations.

More importantly, this problem has become worse with the spread of private higher education. Though the rationale behind encouraging private participation in Higher Education is built, apart from expanding access, around innovation. But the thinking in private education, For-Profit education more specifically, is more conventional than the public education system, and the schools are often built around the values of the industrial society - efficiency, process and mass marketing - and unable to shape themselves for the T-Skill world. For example, many For-profit universities built themselves around the good business logic of 'Core competence', building themselves as Business or Technology schools, rather than cross-discipline spaces of conversation and interaction. They have also focused on industries and employers - the holy grail of private education is to be 'demand-led', meaning with a job waiting at the end - which made them narrower still, not on technologies or disciplines, but on languages and idiosyncrasies of the employers in question. While many research universities may have had a specialisation over-reach, For-profit institutions often committed themselves to the other end of the spectrum - superficiality - by shying away from foundational issues such as language and ethics of a discipline (for example, while the University College London would pride itself for teaching 'Jurisprudence' and not Law, the For-Profit University of Law would mostly limit itself to Graduate Diploma in Law). 

The current conversation about T-Skills targets, more often than not, the obscurity and disciplinary confines of the Research Universities. This is because, from the vantage point of top employers and pioneering thinkers, this is the only part of the Higher Education system that is visible. Therefore, the conversation focuses on the limitations of such a system, and urges innovation. The unspoken assumption there is that introduction of private education will change the scene, and Private Investors in Silicon Valley and elsewhere enthusiastically embrace For-Profit Higher Ed as a way to innovate in Higher Education. In reality, however, For-Profit Higher Ed, which is important as many more people go to For Profit schools than ever before, is driven by industrial era business model, and focused on efficiency: Development of T-Skills as big a challenge to its business model as we claim it to be for large public universities.

In fact, one sad outcome of our public-private stereotyping in Higher Ed is that we tend to overlook great innovations happening at public universities. We tend to overlook new thinking coming out of public universities because it does not fit our mental models. My favourite example is the development of the whole discipline of Big History, which seeks to view human history in a holistic way, combining natural sciences, social sciences and humanities as a whole. While this work was carried out by historians based in traditional universities, it is catching up quickly with private sector work - The Great Courses released a popular course and Coursera has now put it on the catalogue - and philanthropy, Gates Foundation is using this for its American High School Experience, coming together. One would indeed think that models like Big History is absolutely essential for learners seeking to build T-Skills; whether or not you agree with the approach, T-Skills would be about a holistic view of knowledge and Big History is an attempt at it. However, the conversation that innovation and disruption is an exclusively public sector affair blind us from such possibilities.


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