Higher Education and the rise of the Flelephants

Events seem to be moving with an increased pace these days in Higher Education not least spurred on by the imminent parliamentary vote on tuition fees for students. What ever way the vote goes, I think it is safe to say this issue will have a profound effect on the HE landscape in the months and years ahead, as we enter a new paradigm of austerity.

As core budgets continue to be squeezed, the issue of student payment amounts and mechanisms for that payment will undoubtedly become a substantially larger agenda item for most Vice Chancellors, as they struggle to make their respective books balance.

With this in mind I started to think about the future of HE. What will it look like, feel like, and exist as – in the months, years, and decades ahead.

I was minded of the metaphor of the Elephant and the flea, and the place of Universities as large institutions (elephants) in our economy – large, stable, dependable establishments, much like their contemporaries in the commercial world – the corporations. But I thought that we need to also be mindful of, is the smaller infinitely more adaptable flea.

An individual in Handy’s original text – (but a description I feel fits smaller organisations too) the flea, is the creature in this analogy that is smaller more adaptable, quick, and equipped for change.

That got me thinking about Higher Education in general, and how much of the development of the Higher Education apparatus – in terms of infrastructure, buildings, historic funding and to an extent pedagogical approach has been built around that of the “Elephant”?

The bulk of what we regard as our current University system in the UK was built up around the end of the 19th and start of the early 20th century. Originally built in industrial towns – these “Red Brick” institutions were constructed as engineering and science colleges erected to provide talent, educated knowhow and entrepreneurial “liquidity” to the burgeoning industrial behemoth that Britain had become at the latter part of the 19th century.

Driven in part by the rapid technological change of the railways, steam ships and the internal combustion engine, the development of these institutions was also expedited in part, as a response to the biggest industrial competitor Britain had at the time. Germany.

The start of the 20th Century was a time of massive political, cultural, economic upheaval and transformation. The industrialisation of the country was the route to success for the U.K then, and ultimately this model, became a highly successful meme, which spread and transformed the West into what we can see today.

The building of big “things” was key to this development, big companies, big ships, big cities, big institutions. Physical size and presence was the key to this success of industrialism.

This “industrialisation” model of transformational change, which was ultimately derived from Enlightenment thought a century before, as extolled by Kant, Locke, and Hume provided the mechanism for 100 years of economic, cultural, and technological domination of the globe, worldwide trade, and cultural and political memes such as the spread of systems of democratic representation throughout large parts of the world.

Moving forward a century we can see the same dynamics at work again. With the rapid development of new technologies, the emergence of strong competitors in other countries, and the current economic dislocation of western systems of finance; all routes point – in my mind – towards an inflection point, if you will – where the technology, systems and infrastructure of the past, are rapidly becoming obsolete.

From a HE perspective, the tectonic shift of the wider geopolitical world is creating a profound resonance for us in the way we do business.

Change is looming, and unavoidable; the old “industrial” certainties are a thing of the past. The harsh reality is that the future of education is no longer dependant on large buildings, city locations or large manicured campuses. The reality is that we are even becoming less reliant on “places” per se.

So my contention is, that the systems we have used for the last century are becoming increasingly redundant. The competitive advantage afforded historically by large buildings, libraries, auditoria and lecture theatres, is giving way to the comparative advantage of small institutions, and private sector competitors, who are using technology to “lever” themselves into positions of note.

They can now reach more people via technology than the largest lecture theatre, as a result the price point for their courses is less, but their reach via the internet is no less great than those of traditional institutions. Indeed some would contend that their reach (as fleas) is greater at the moment – as they have adapted to the new realities much more quickly than those of the elephant.

The gauntlet has been thrown down for us in HE. I believe however, it is possible to use the competitive advantage of our reputation for quality, and historical integrity, to our advantage, whilst simultaneously creating smaller technologically advanced “divisions” – offshoot if you will – for HE institutions that can become more “flealike” in their adaptability, become accustomed to the new paradigm and much more quickly start to compete in the new environment, whilst at the same time allowing the larger parent time to adapt, and to lend weight to the new offshoot.

We need to adapt, change, and become more flexible in our approach to “being”; this will have to be reflected in a wholesale change in the way we operate. From location, and the use of physical resources and infrastructure, to systems of organisation, to working patterns (no more 9-5 on a globally attended course) and to the implementation of technologically innovative solutions.

We need to think about how to “transmogrify” into a hybrid that is both Elephant and Flea…. Now where’s a geneticist when you need one?

Elephant. – Quality assured, Reputable, Permanent, Reliable, Value added and Prestigious,

Flea. –Flexible, dynamic, innovative, adaptable, quick.

More to follow…

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