Advocating change: Leading the disruption conversation in your university

by Luke Williams |
advocating change: leading the disruption conversation in your university

In fewer than five years, some Australian universities will be forced to shut their doors.

This prediction, while brutal, reflects the sad reality that some in the Higher Education sector will only grasp the full impacts of digital disruption once the windows are boarded up.

While universities have been lucky to avoid the upheavals that have shaken the media, retail, entertainment and many other industries over the past decade, it would be a mistake to assume that Higher Education won’t be similarly upturned in time.

At its heart, digital disruption turns established business models, customer interactions and value propositions on their head – rendering some traditional methods obsolete due to their comparatively rigid and inefficient processes.

Generally speaking, there is plenty of room to optimise the efficiency both of research and student outcomes within most universities. In fact, if there was ever a sector primed for the winds of disruption to blow through, it is Higher Education.

A couple of years ago, the sector was both panicked and excited by Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) movement – and some of the world’s best universities moved to offer content for free. However it’s fair to say, rather than truly disrupt the sector, MOOCs turned out to be a red herring – a development that was more focussed on the content delivery mechanism without truly challenging the university business model.

MOOCs have not yet had the impact many thought they would as content delivery has never been the core of a university’s value proposition: even before the internet, any decent library offered access to the same content.

The core of a university’s business model is not content but degrees. Credentials are where universities currently hold their power. Nobody attends Harvard or Oxford because they think they will receive content that is significantly better than anywhere else. No, these institutions are attractive to students because of the degrees they offer and the reputation that students gain by proxy when they graduate with this credential.

Against this backdrop, we can see how disruption could play out in the higher education sector. Consider what might happen if employers start weighing accreditations other than those from traditional universities as equally – if not more – valid? The value of a university degree is inherently undermined.

If Google or another highly reputable institution, public or private, were to offer an accreditation based on the demonstration of skills and knowledge equivalent to the offering of a university, and if employers start to recognise those credentials, the whole landscape of education will shift.

Suddenly the degree is not the only form of external validation, traditional monopolies no longer exist and business models are forever disrupted.

This scenario, however isn’t just self-indulgent navel gazing: Coursera have already spoken of partnering with companies to create this model and Udacity are promoting a form of “micro-credentialing” that is offering value to both students and employers.


So the question becomes; where does that leave universities?

Brands with the weight of Harvard or MIT, will not be at as much as risk as middle-of-the road universities. Those without a globally recognised brand or a strong reputation in a particular discipline will have a dwindling place in this new era of education.

Smart universities will identify their own niche, where their researchers lead the world, and invest in building reputation globally.

‘Jack of all trades’ universities face the risk of being ‘masters of none’ and will not build the prestige of institutions that are known for being world leaders in particular fields.


So what can I do?

Aside from getting a job at Harvard, leaving the sector or boarding up the windows prematurely, here are my thoughts;

  • Be the catalyst - evangelise disruption

    You may feel like Noah warning of a coming flood on a sunny day, but if you have the ear of senior people talk to them. Challenge the executive to think through the threat and opportunity of disruption at a fundamental level. No individual can prepare an institution for the changes to come but hopefully you can be the catalyst that gets people talking and working towards the steps below.

  • Encourage investment in creating the best online educational experience around your niche

    Assuming you can identify a viable niche, work at creating the best online content and online experiences for this discipline. Think video, think rich media, think interactivity and when you have done that, make it available on the best platforms to build audience and grow brand recognition. The steps you take around your niche may form the pilot approach to modularising your content so that even if accreditation changes, your educational content can still be a revenue stream for the university.

  • Partner with the leaders in the disruption

    Research the platforms and players that are most likely to lead the changes in accreditation and partner with them. Even if accreditation changes, there will still be a need for educational content so work with the disruptors to be on the front foot, adapting your business model in advance rather than playing catch up as disruption comes knocking.

  • Build agility into your systems

    While it is clear that education will be disrupted, the exact shape of that disruption is, as yet, unclear. Rather than doing nothing and hoping for the best, creating systems and platforms that can adapt to change is critical. Educational content should be standardised so that it can be integrated and aggregated to other systems. Data should be integrated and standardised so that it can play nicely with other systems should disruptive forces require. Core systems should be considered in terms of their flexibility to adapt to new business models and requirements to inter-operate with external systems.

With the right partners who understand the challenges you face, institutions can work towards adapting in advance rather than playing catch up when disruption comes knocking.

A version of this post was first published on Campus Review.

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