Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Higher Education Business: Ideas For A Start-Up

Start-up isn't what any Higher Ed business wants to call itself, as the prevalent notions are all about history and tradition, lineage and claims. Every institution wants to say that it has always been there. But that should be changing: Hopefully, as Higher Education becomes an industry, because millions of students all over the world are aspiring to get Higher Ed, we may start seeing some start-ups. The language of conversation may finally start to change. My favourite story in this context relates to Woolworth's. When Frank Woolworth opened his first store in New York in 1879 (which, admittedly, failed in a short time), a more established rival down the same street put up a sign 'FIFTY YEARS AND GOING STRONG': Woolworth's response was to put up a rival sign 'JUST OPENED! NO OLD STOCK'.

A start-up in Higher Ed may start with 'No Bureaucracy' sign, or something similar. One has to accept that except a few pockets of excellence, the current publicly funded higher education system in most countries is out of date and irrelevance, laden with bureaucracy and self-interest, and pointless pursuits. Clark Kerr indeed hit the nail on its head defining Chancellor's job as to provide 'sex for students, parking for faculty and athletics for alumni', but the universities outside America may have even more trivial pursuits. This, in the whole new context of Higher Education, where millions of students want a piece of good life through the pursuit of knowledge and grade inflation is just as rampant, is a serious problem, which start-ups, with their risk-taking and innovation, alone can solve. They can help bring the cost of higher education down at the time when student debt is becoming a huge problem in many countries and building into another bubble.

However, for all these promises, the For Profit Higher Education industry, the start-ups and not so start-ups, have failed to get it right. The governments, the Press and the students on both sides of Atlantic are bitterly complaining about the short-comings of these institutions. However, one can argue that this failure may not be because of lack of regulation, because Higher Education is actually quite closely regulated, but because of over-regulation that misses the point. Most regulation in Higher Education today is designed to make For Profit institutions work like their public counterparts. It is difficult to see the point as that is the model which failed, and that's the reason why we need For Profits. Governments across the world seems to want Private Sector investment in education, but none of its innovation: They simply want to build more of the same provisions that failed to adapt and created the Higher Ed problem in the first place.

So, standing at this time of worldwide economic crisis, when jobs disappear and competition becomes intense, but the students keep coming, one would hope that the time for Higher Education start-ups have come. One would hope that this time the governments will be forced to do the right thing - let the Private Sector invest and innovate, and let competition and a suitable regulatory framework governing students' rights maintain the quality and relevance of learning. If that happens, one hopes, finally, one would see the Google and facebook of Education industry, and finally, it will become an industry worth the description.

How does one then see a disruptive start-up model thrive in this space? Most Higher Ed businesses today actually follow the model of their public sector counterparts, with large buildings, sprawling lawns and athletics facilities, and eventually get burdened by the high capital costs. Partly driven by regulatory requirements, this is surely not how the next innovation in Higher Education look. It may sound terribly obvious, but the next winning business may start with people and ideas. This may be about a few people coming together to re-imagine the space, with a rather simple and obvious objective of creating minds ready for the challenges of an increasingly discontinuous world. It may surely be Utopian, but these schools may be small and idealistic, and their economies may be driven by the high value of tutoring and close student-teacher relationship rather than mass production of diplomas. Their credo may be one of enlightenment all over again, away from employability factories which all education institutions want to become these days. And, finally, they may employ the modern information and communication technology effectively to drive down the costs, expand student choice and make the instruction more global.

Do I know a start-up like that already? Unfortunately no, but this is where my research interest is. I have worked for a considerable period of time in the For Profit Higher Ed now, and looked closely at various business models. I am surely at a break point of some sort, where my search for this disruptive start-up must commence.

1 comment:

pragmaticlearning.in said...

Hi Supriyo,
A timely piece that touches all thorns.
It does look like a NEW model would emerge driven and curated by the community (students, teachers and even professionals with a teaching penchant).
Will this model be acceptable? Or can an acceptable model be created?
These are the questions.
We are building prototypes on a few community collaboration models.

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