Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Do you see your students as products?

Do you see your students as products? It's ok, really, I'm not going to judge. Lot's of people see it that way. You can use whatever metaphor you like if it helps you get the job done.

Lot's of Universities, implicitly or implicitly, see students as products. School leavers go in, get their school educated heads deprogrammed, learn new stuff, grow up a bit, and go out the other end, ready to take their place in the knowledge economy. You can see Universities as the coal mines and steel mills of the information age churning out the raw feedstock of the knowledge economy.

If you see them as products, that's fine, but maybe you need to follow through with that idea a little bit and see where it takes you.

Firstly, the three and four year production line is a bit long, don't you think. Moves towards shorter, compressed degrees are a step to rectify this. If you feel students need the time to mature, fine, but is that part of what your University is good at? Maybe they can mature better someplace else? If you do want to mature them as well as educate them, is the campus/lectures model the best one? Shouldn't you be giving them credit for other things, like engagement with college life, clubs, societies and so forth?

It doesn't take a Lean Six Sigma guru to figure out that your physical assets, lecture rooms and so forth, are lying idle all weekend, much of the evening and substantial chunks of the year out of term. Summer schools, evening classes and so on help a bit, but some institutions run on two 11 week terms! I can't see Toyota running a plant day shift only for less than half a year for very long. Of course, you'd need to take on an extra shift or two, but that big campus probably costs as much as a semiconductor fab, or a pharmaceuticals plant. There's plenty of people trying to get in. Sweat the asset.

And what about market research? What employers 'buy' your graduates. Exactly what ones. No generalities, names and phone numbers. What do they think of them. You run lots of focus groups with the big employers, don't you? Don't you? You hardly you turn out something that costs tens of thousands of euros with no market research?  We'll, at least you follow up with the graduates every year to see exactly what they are doing and feed the data back into your course design. Don't you? I know they are hard to find, but we have this Facebook thing now, so it's no problem.

I could go on, but see where I'm going here. If you need the mental exercise, take any manufacturing paradigm you fancy and apply to the University. Enough of the insights will be relevant to make it worthwhile.

Seeing your students as products is a powerful, if impolitic, metaphor. Maybe it should prompt you to looking at how great products are really made in the 21st century, and what valid lessons can be taken from that to how your University churns out graduates. Of course, the 'student as product' metaphor breaks down in a bunch of ways, for starters, there is the mismatch between whoever is 'getting' the product and whoeever is paying for it, but that's a whole other post for another time. Just because the metaphor is imperfect doesn't dismiss the ideas it prompts.

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