Thursday, September 23, 2010

How to put Universities out of business

A University isn't a business, but it operates subject to the same laws of supply and demand, in the same ecosystem, even if its objectives aren't profit. So long what it produces is valued by society, and no competition exists, Universities will survive, regardless of what torments their governments or administrators put them through.

So what do Universities produce that we need so badly? Graduates.

Why do we need those again? It all comes down to employers. By looking at a resume and noting the institution, subject and grade, a prospective employer gets a vast amount of information about a students intellect, knowledge base and approximate character without the expense of an interview. A candidate pool of millions can by pre screened down to dozens with a few dozen characters of text.: BSc (UCC Geol) 1H, PhD. It's beautifully compact, ten to the tweet.

Now, imagine for a minute if Universities didn't exist. The Martians arrive one day and carry them off, leaving nothing but some empty real estate and a few torn flyers for the freshers ball. What would happen then?

Employers would have a problem. How could you filter for people with specific skills, aptitudes and background. How could you figure out who had grown up a bit, and who hadn't? Can't interview them all, it would take too long and cost too much.
The resumes would be like novels, full of odds and end. Imagine how many bits and pieces you would have to do to be, for example, a Vet? At the very least, you'd have to thoroughly read the resume, decide on the virtues of whatever courses they took, whatever work experiences they had, volunteer activities and so forth. It would be tedious and slow. Inefficient.

But this is the 21st century. Now we have machines for that kind of work, don't we?
If I wanted to put Universities out of business, I'd find a faster, cheaper way of filtering candidates for employment. Some way of tracking and assessing the true value of what a potential candidate has done and matching it to closely to potential employee needs. Stripped of the false simplicity of a degree, I could match personality and aptitude test results, more domain specific education at a much more granular level than a monolithic degree. Such a system would select candidates for interview who would be a much tighter fit to my needs than the gross level degree filtering. If we can unzip genomes and read from them useful information, surely we can unzip peoples life experience and map it to the right jobs and careers.

From the student perspective, instead of spending four years chunking through a monolithic primary degree, people could do a more varied mix of things, and have the same system advise them closely on what they aught to be doing to match whatever employment or career path they might be interested in. Instead of a degeee being a thing entered blindly at one end and exited traumatically after big bang finals, with hope and a scroll, it becomes a lifelong process as they student (and never, truly, a graduate) accumulates useful experience to steer them towards whatever they want to be.

Universities can be at the centre of this new model, if they move fast. They are well placed at the centre of a the education web, with strong established brands, considerable (if, presently, overstretched) resources and a strong incentive.

But they probably wont. They are too close to the current model to see anything different as anything other than nonsense, or a threat to be poo poo'd. There is a reason Amazon isn't called 'Waterstones' or 'Barnes and Noble', and eBay isn't called Buy and Sell. It takes an outsider to see the potential, and act on it. Someday, soon, someone will do this. The first few efforts will fail, for mundane reasons. These things happen. You can then dismiss the model, until one year, the applicant numbers start go top off, and then go down, little by little, until one fine day someone who is perhaps now only a middle ranking lecturer find the hard choice is the only one and turns out the lights.

At least you'll have some good real estate to sell.

Related Posts:
21st Century Assessment: The University of Farmville
The Qualifications Arms Race


  1. There are two problems with this.

    First you skim over the importance of majoring in a discipline; which inculcates the practices and epistemology of the discipline. In theory, someone with a clatter of science modules could apply to be a petrogeologist, but in practice, they will screw up more often than a 'proper' geologist and people will lose money (or die). So university isn't just "four years chunking through a monolithic primary degree"; it is majoring in a discipline. Without a major, you don't have a degree.

    Secondly, someone has to deliver all this teaching, and certify the results. I have no doubt but that there will be changes in how that is organised, but students will still need people to read their work, explain what they have got wrong, and mentor them in the disciplines. Done well, it is labour intensive.

  2. That's kind of what American universities do already. They tailor courses yearly based on what the employment market wants. Also, that quick filtering is supposed to be what does. Why isn't it taking off the way it should be, according to your blog? I don't know.

    I think, if there were no universities, I would expect a return to the apprentice system, with greater job inertia and probably no horizontal movement at all.

  3. @solo1: I would expect the US to be further along on it, but, you are closer to the coalface there than I, so I defer.
    I would see monster as one of the early failure alluded to in my post. It went so far, and then stopped short of what could have been.

    @Mike Cosgrave. This is beyond degrees, that's the point.

    Some degrees are coherent and excellent groundings for...something. but do you know exactly what?
    Let me ask you:
    What are the top 5 employers of your graduates (specifically. Names.)
    What aspects of the degree grounding did they value most and least in their hires?
    What, 2 and 5 years down the line, did the actual graduates find most useful.
    When was this data last updated.
    When was the content last updated to reflect this information?

    I'd lay good money many degree programs can't answer question 1 beyond a generality, let alone the following ones (some can, more power to them). People are trained in disciplines with no reference to the world they are to be trained for.

    Your second point, thus, seems somewhat null. If you can develop an open accreditation model that can fit in courses and experiences from hither and yon, people can, and will, still teach, but they don't necessarily need to do it inside a university framework.

  4. I agree that getting more granular is possible but I don't know that it's the direction things are going now, strangely. I read a report last night, "Raising the Bar: Employers’ Views On College Learning In The Wake Of The Economic Downturn" that suggests that employers are going to learn MORE heavily on four-year degrees. The question is, are students going to continue heading into four-year degrees, and what will happen when that stream of students slows and jobs are looking for anyone they can after the Baby Boomer generation retires. I think community colleges will be better placed - faster, more economical and job focused educations. Employers will still require third-party validation, so community colleges, or barring that, some kind of agreed-on assessment of critical thinking, job-related skills (portfolios, which are more important and easier to create online now).

  5. @ceaselessidleness
    Interesting. I'll Google that up and have a read. I wonder if the lean towards four year degrees reflects a weaker job market and general standard raising. I recall a college friend of mine who got a job on the tills in a supermarket after he graduated, because he had a law degree (The was pre-Tiger Ireland)
    I think online portfolios / PLE are part of the picture. What missing is some easy way to scoop up all the online doings, offline qualifications, experiences and so on and automagically match them up with what is needed. If its quick and gets better hires faster and cheaper, employers will jump on to it.

  6. Robert, I think you are simplifying the realtionship with employers. Many degrees particularly in Arts do not lead directly to employment. No job profile matches History graduate.
    Looking at my own graduating class in Zoology of over 30 years ago, many took circuitous routes (that could never have been predicted) to their present jobs. About 1/3 are in education (a big (maybe self-perpetuating) employer of graduates), 1/3 working in areas broadly related to their studies, 1/3 doing jobs that bear no relationship to their degree.

  7. @Niall
    You've nailed it right in the eyeball there. Many degrees - too many - don't link to employment. You have to cap them off with a taught MSc or MA in something useful before employers are interested (especially in the Arts). I trained as a Geologist, the most practical of the sciences (I'm in remission now)and even my primary degree wouldn't have qualified me to open a packet of biscuits in the Geosciences.
    It's interesting you highlight how everyone has moved on, mostly, from the ground of their degree. Isn't that an argument against a finite, bounded qualification and in favour of ongoing, granular, accreditable, lifelong learning?

  8. @Robert - many in my age group have been back into formal and informal education. At a certain point work experience is more important than academic accreditation. Increasingly with mature students at 3rd level, there are students who are working (or have worked) as well as studying. Perhaps we should return to an apprenticeship model (might wor for geologists ... don't know how philosophy students would fit in)

    an interesting article in the Guardian shows that students from less advantged backgrounds avoid the Humanities and opt for more career-focused courses e.g. computing.

    I would imagine they are looking at their career prospects from day one.