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Are our universities at risk of becoming irrelevant?

UniversitiesThe landscape of the educational system in which universities operate is shifting . Online learning and massive open online courses (MOOC) have meant learning content is now easily accessible to all. In many instances access to information is actually free. This is forcing universities to rethink their place in the educational ecosystem and the value they provide to their clients.

In a world where information is free and government funding is constrained, universities have had to find new sources of revenue. While rankings based on research will remain important, finding ways to fund that research is becoming ever more complex. Increasingly, universities have had to embrace commercial realities and become businesses. Subject to the same conditions as businesses, they are being forced to ‘compete’ and the pressure to differentiate themselves and add value for their clients is mounting.

Competing against their natural competitors, being other universities, is one thing. Competing against new and unexpected disruptive models of education delivered through the internet is something entirely new. The gloves are off, and universities are in a fight for their relevance and survival .

The problem is that many of them don’t realise it yet. To stay in business, like all businesses, they need to be more attractive to their customers: they will need to find a way to ensure prospective students are knocking on the door to get in and that they are cornering the precious few research dollars from industry or government that are available. Achieving this goal starts with one very simple question, but one that many universities struggle to answer. That question is: “Who is your client?”

What would happen if a university could ‘guarantee’ that the students who graduated from their institution would have a better chance of securing an amazing job, and at an excellent salary? Would that university be more attractive to prospective students? What if that university worked intimately with industry to help industry provide better solutions to their clients and, at the same time, synthesised this information to understand exactly what industry requires of its future workforce, and then used the outcome of this synthesis to coach their students to deliver on that need?

UniversitiesTo deliver on this ‘guarantee’, universities need to think about becoming the students themselves. They would have to apply the well-known business principle of ‘knowing your customer inside out’. They would have to understand the needs and the changing paradigms of their students’ prospective employers and then tailor their product (their students) to industry’s needs.

In a study conducted in the US last year, only 23% of employers said that recent graduates are well prepared for applying their knowledge and skills in the real world. If industry will one day provide university students with jobs, then ‘industry’ is arguably a university’s most important client. This is a new way of looking at things. It would challenge the status quo and how most universities see themselves. Most companies view the person who pays their bills as their customer. But, enlightened businesses are seeing their clients’ customer as the new customer. Successful businesses are focusing on making their clients’ business more successful by making them more attractive to their customer.

The engineering industry, which itself is undergoing significant disruption, would have a far better idea of the sort of engineering graduate they require to remain relevant to their customers than anyone else. If universities are not closely connected to what is going on in the engineering world and what it is that this world requires an engineer to be in terms of skill sets, capabilities and offerings, then how would they know what type of graduate to provide this industry in the future?

If universities are to remain relevant in a world of constant disruption, reimagining who their client is would be a powerful action. If they did this they would interact with industry in totally different ways. Through designing their courses and their campuses differently for interactivity between disciplines, and co-designing them with industry, the result would be students that remain highly relevant to the future of their clients.

Arguably, this is the approach that universities will have to adopt if they are to remain relevant. If they do not, they risk losing the support of their real clients.

This glimpse of the future was brought to you by Dr Kourosh Kayvani.

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20 replies »

  1. It’s not surprising that the US survey revealed that only 23% were well prepared in applying their skills and knowledge, you only need to go as far as the student at the end of their course and ask the same question to attain a similar response. As a recent mature age Civil engineering graduate I can add that there is simply not enough design based assignment / assessment work within the course structure. Furthermore due to increasing student numbers per lecture session, students are being forced to join large assignment groups (which is a key component of teamwork) doing the same assignment which dilutes the learning and accountability. I strongly believe for every student there should be a unique design assignment for each subject and this can be aligned to a private engineering design firm. The engineering design firm should set the design brief at the appropriate level (it should never be the same to prevent cheating) with all design parameters possibly given to the universities so it can be used as the marking template. This would alleviate the universities concerns of being inundated with too many assignments to mark.

    • Thanks for your conments. I like your idea of setting design assignments unique to each student. I feel if we get the right level of connectivity between the universities and the industry, the “design brief” for these assignments can be set rather effortlessly.

  2. This is a revolution in knowledge. Education comes second.

    The benefactors are profitable companies. The deep end of the barrel is limitless. Their investments are truly revolutionary in collaboration with the best teams and researchers in the field of science and technology. STEM subjects will bloom. There will be no end in sight.

    The striving poor will equal students in Ivy League schools in getting seats at R&D companies with very limited and broad exposure according to their talents and gifts. The world has become flat.

    Kids with barely high school diplomas are now coders and programmers at top software companies and software applications will boom for the next 20 years. Not only in the next 20 years, perhaps as long as humanity exists.

    Those who have the aptitude will get ahead. Those with lesser gifts might end on menial jobs and the entertainment business.

    Yes, technicians will continue to maintain robots, adjust our equipment and recycle old parts.

    Not bad really for everyone.

    • Thanks for your comments. While change is inevitable, we are able to shape our future in the ways we embrace, interact and harness the changed environment

  3. Makes one think. Due to the fast pace of job and career changes in the next ten years, universities will have to rethink their role as a “sustainable educator”. The time is nearing where first year modules will be outdated by the third year of university.

    • I feel the “why” of things is a far slower changing parameter that the “how” of things. I believe our universities don’t cover the why of things as well as they should.

  4. Good observation. To some extent this is already happening in IT where a non traditional qualification from Microsoft or Cisqo is more valued than the traditional educational institute training.

  5. I finished study about 12 years ago and even then we felt like mass produced students (and this was in the creative arts!). For uni’s to remain relevant they should be focussing on disruptive ideas and critical thinking and less on information. These strategies are part of design thinking and probably the only thing that stops a student from becoming a commodity.

    • Thanks for your comments which I agree with. One can already see how some of the so-called tier two universities are embracing design thinking and innovation and through that enabling themselves to bring a real challenge to the blue ribbon/Ivy League/Sandstone universities.

  6. Just like creativity cannot be commoditised, a good teacher cannot be mechanised either. Education is not only about knowledge, it is about the art of creating inquiring minds. My own education at university went a little way to increasing my knowledge, by far the most important thing university did for me was to teach me how to think. In our quest for innovation, which is about creativity, inquiry, and knowledge, we need be wary of ubiquitous solutions just because they are there. Not every training course on the internet is good or valuable, the trick is to look for quality and this requires experience and vision. Add an experienced guiding hand and this might be where our universities find their sweet spot in the future. Just a thought.

    • Great comments. I believe one key role of an educator in the digital age is to help students navigate through oceans of content of highly variable quality available online.

  7. This debate has been long coming and the conversations around education in general need to increase. THe academic models need to change as the time to approve and accredit a course such that However, the changes need to be driven by industry and business as it is the requirements in these sectors of wanting specific degrees / qualifications that the academic institutions respond to. The failing is the lack of agility with the academic environment making it almost impossible to respond to business needs (it takes about 5 – 10 years to get a programme accredited). The Singularity University has a responsive curriculum, changing as industry changes but as a consequence none of their programmes are accredited – and this has its own hazards as business still views accredited qualifications as essential. Todd Rose’s book “The end of Average”, give great insight into how some of these things can be addressed within the business and academic environments, leveraging the MOOC’s but basing qualifications on competencies as opposed to knowledge / information. A serious shift in thinking for business and academics

    • Thank you for your insightful comments. Perhaps we need a more adaptive model for the accreditation of degrees, one that replies more on output (eg, production of employable thinkers, problem solvers and innovators) as opposed to rather static input (eg, curriculum)??

    • Thank you for your support. There are a couple of other related topics that I intend to write about this year.

  8. Accredited qualifications, that is what industry wants and will be prepared to partner with universities to achieve it. We live in a global village with international norms and standards being required by the public. Civil engineering is a classic example with the poor wanting its products and services as much as anybody. Life’s truth is the story of Homo sapiens journey from a garden to a city in the physical as well as spiritual sense.

  9. Great article. I am a big believer of practical application whilst be educated. When students don’t see the relevance or the association between what they are learning and how it is applied in the real world, they will never fully understand or simply forget (over time) what they have just learnt.

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