Published on 2014/04/15

Changing the Role of Educators: Academic Vendors for Universities and Colleges

Changing the Role of Educators: Academic Vendors for Universities and Colleges
Creating a more student-centered higher education model demands a fundamental restructuring of the roles of different postsecondary stakeholders.

The interested parties of higher education have in common a complex goal of reducing costs while improving access to quality education provided in the absence of labor exploitation.

Even so, tradition has prioritized the interests of universities and colleges over those of academics, students and society, placing an institutional slant on any attempt at improvement.

From this position, higher education institutions (HEIs) have turned to casual labor, technology solutions and vendor partnerships in order to fulfil their middleman functions with greater economy and scale.

To illustrate this point, consider Josh Boldt’s observation that cable television and higher education have complementary interested parties — providers/institutions, creators/academics, and consumers/students — and that emerging technology and business models are enabling creators of cable content to connect with price-weary consumers in ways that put pressure on traditional providers to offer better pricing and compensation.[1] In Canada and the United States, one consequence of these developments is the “unbundling” of content.

By analogy, universities and colleges are essentially licensed to provide students the only for-credit access to higher education content created by academics. With decreases in public funding, increases in tuition, poor academic compensation and the introduction of technology, new models are emerging that, like the cable sector, unbundle (academic) content from (institutional) providers.

Matt Reed of Inside Higher Education does not buy Boldt’s analogy. Unlike cable television, higher education lacks local monopolies and well-known, highly-desired content that is unique to individual creators or providers. There is a history department in nearly every HEI, though “from the outside, non-experts (such as prospective students) can’t be expected to know which American history professor is a life-changer and which is merely competent” and so “they rely on institutions to do that screening for them.”[2]

I find both writers to be too conventional in their thinking. If we are to improve the state of higher education and better meet the goals of all parties, what’s needed are models that fundamentally restructure relationships.

The alternative model I propose (shared in a recent EvoLLLution article) specifies that academics offer their services within the tradition of a professional social contract; as do attorneys, physicians, dentists or engineers. Academic expertise would be offered under the protection and direction of a professional society that affords individuals the liberty to personally (and collectively) represent their own interests as “edupreneurs” operating private practices aimed at servicing students from the traditional to the non-traditional.

With this adjustment, HEIs would no longer be burdened by the traditional responsibility of providing income, benefits, facilities and services to unionized faculty employees. As made clear by the rise in managerial, administrative and (non-academic) professional personnel, the responsibility for this employer/employee relationship has become a significant public expense in higher education.[3]

Instead, the professional response is essentially to distribute across a new academic profession responsibility for these typical institutional functions.

Under the new model for higher education, students and HEIs would have the opportunity to enter service relationships with professional academics that improve higher education in ways not possible under the traditional institutional model assumed by Boldt, Reed and virtually all others.

As an indication of the fundamental shift prescribed by this model, consider a professional translation of these new relationship dynamics in terms of vendor partnerships.

From the point of view of professional academics, traditional institutions can be seen as vendors for facilities, equipment and services that they consume as required by practice management. Under this business model, institutions assume roles already occupied by the wider community.

From the perspective of HEIs, academics can be viewed as vendors whose content and services are consumed as required by institutional mission.

From the perspective of HEIs, eliminating the traditional employer/employee relationship allows institutions (and academics) to exercise greater discretion in the formation of casual labor relationships, without the immediate imperative of labor exploitation or expensive administration, management and union representation. Further, without union-enforced employment contracts, institutions can respond more effectively to market and economic changes, exercise greater innovation and better sustain themselves through vendor agreements with professional academics. But consider a potential problem Reed identifies in Boldt’s argument to unbundle academics from institutions. “If professors have to hawk their pedagogical wares individually, I see a bifurcation emerging quickly: a few superstars will do very, very well for themselves, and the overwhelming majority will have to reduce their activity to a hobby.”[4]

As it happens, Reed himself provides an adequate response. Like cable providers, he notes that institutions operate as aggregators and screeners of (academic) content suitable for (student) consumers, and it is precisely this function that enables the current institutional model and the alternative professional model to unite and improve the circumstances for all interested parties.

In addition to what would be provided on the basis of professional criteria, institutions could provide another layer of academic aggregation and screening. Over time, a system of reciprocity would evolve wherein individual professional academic reputation is developed as institutions of good repute retain and endorse their services, while individual academics establish notable public reputations that can in turn bolster the reputation of any institution that retains their professional services.

And though there certainly exist legal, medical and engineering stars no one would suggest, as Reed does, that it is generally difficult to earn a respectable middle-class living in these professional fields. I suggest the same would be the case were higher education to operate as a profession that admits as many qualified academics as wish to provide the service.

Of course, if the MOOC business model succeeds, Reed is likely correct; only a handful of academics will prevail. This would be disastrous not only for the academic labor market but also for the generation and dissemination of knowledge, and the varied access required to service all types of students. However, this can be avoided so long as we stop myopic endorsement of the institutional model and the union representation it entails and start entertaining fundamentally different models for the provision of higher education.

– – – –

References

[1] Josh Boldt, “Off Track: What Higher Ed Can Learn From Cable Television,” Vitae, November 12, 2013. Accessed at https://chroniclevitae.com/news/138-off-track-what-higher-ed-can-learn-from-cable-television

[2] Matt Reed, “Cable and College: A Response to Josh Boldt,” Inside Higher Ed, November 14, 2013. Accessed at http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/confessions-community-college-dean/cable-and-college-response-josh-boldt

[3]Laura Knapp, Janice Kelly-Reid and Scott Ginder, “Employees in Postsecondary Institutions, Fall 2010, and Salaries of Full-Time Instructional Staff, 2010-11: First Look.” National Center for Education Statistics: Department of Education. November 2011. Accessed at http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2012/2012276.pdf

[4] Reed, 2013

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Readers Comments

Will Wright 2014/04/15 at 3:03 pm

Fascinating discussion on seeing academics as professionals who offer services to an institution. I assume “academic” in this case refers to full-time faculty. If that’s the case, I wonder what the distinction would be between tenured faculty and adjunct staff, who already largely operate as unaffiliated individuals who offer services to an institution. I also wonder what a move toward this reimagined relationship would mean for the traditional tenure model.

    Shawn Warren 2014/04/15 at 5:00 pm

    Hello Will,

    Thank you for the comment.

    A big part of the audience I hope to reach with this idea is the adjunct population. Right now some are – as you say – unaffiliated (sort of free agents), but increasingly they are union represented with employment contracts (and all that comes with that). In fact this is the main thrust of activism among adjuncts – unionize and fight for pay, benefits and security in the employment contract.

    For various reasons I believe this is a mistake for adjuncts (http://bit.ly/KzB1QE), institutions and society.

    Instead the government sanctioned professional social contract I propose – as we have now for law, medicine, psychiatry, engineering, etc – requires HE institutions to hire the services of independent professional academics in private practice. One of the advantages of this is that institutions are not required to fund the services offered in such a practice, as they are required to fund the services of their faculty employees (both full and part time).

    This is a paradigm shift in HE. Universities and colleges could retain control of degree granting status – though this is not necessary (http://bit.ly/1lJMjPG) – and continue to offer any services they see fit, but would push the responsibility for financing academic services onto the private, professional practice (as attorneys or dentists finance their own services from facilities to pension).

    This is cheaper for the public and institutions (http://bit.ly/1kF68L1).

    Right now HE institutions employ adjunct faculty because their service does not have to be financed as heavily as the tenured (or tracked) faculty they employ, but with the rise in unionization of adjuncts this is changing. One consequence will be even fewer academics to service the demand for education and research, since institutions will have to pay more to employ even adjuncts.

    There are other important advantages this mode offers to (adjunct) academics, students and institutions that I invite you to explore at http://bit.ly/LUNqyK.

    But finally the notion of tenure would hold no sway in the professional model, where a long tenure is typically a result of good service to clients and community – not a politically charged, often ill-informed, narrow panel decision. This is not to say that such peer judgments are not possible in the professional model for HE and might result in titles of distinction that help promote one’s academic practice.

    I am happy to discus this at any length you wish…

    Cheers
    Shawn

Kevin Carroll 2014/04/15 at 6:33 pm

Josh Boldt’s analogy with cable television matching institutions as providers, academics as creators, and students as consumers misapplies the labels as a result of being too limited in scope.

Using a broader scope that includes employers it is obvious then that students are not consumers/buyers at all but rather sellers of their ability (skills, knowledge, and capability) to employers, the true consumers/buyers in a broader scope that must not be ignored even in an argument.

Academics as creators/producers? Reed picks up on the mislabeling but doesn’t go far enough, again, because of limited scope. By and large, academics/instructors are distributors and business model design should acknowledge them as such.

Yes Shawn, academics/instructors are indeed on the “sell-side” of the platform but they are not vendors. The vendor is saved for parties that we might think of as creators/producers of product that are designed to meet the needs of the demand-side (employers and students/candidates) and are themselves in need of distribution; ala academics/instructors. An author, a researcher, a programmer, and a LMS provider are specific examples of vendors in need of distribution. And some product is delivered most effectively by a real human being; the value of an academic/instructor.

Evaluating HE as if it is anything more than a key activity in a much broader business model that accounts for the market’s greatest pain point or “job-to-be-done” is a set up for poor arguments and continued failure to become viable.

    Shawn Warren 2014/04/16 at 1:22 pm

    Hello Kevin,

    Good to hear from you.

    You say, “Using a broader scope that includes employers it is obvious then that students are not consumers/buyers at all but rather sellers of their ability (skills, knowledge, and capability) to employers, the true consumers/buyers in a broader scope that must not be ignored even in an argument.”

    Not an expert in business I say with some naivety that in the commercial world the roles of buyer and seller switch depended on the stage of commercial transaction and in fact one party can be both a consumer and a seller – though perhaps not simultaneously.

    For instance, a restauranteur is both a buyer and a seller. He buys from local food produces and sells to local restaurant patrons. This seems obvious.

    By analogy then students are both buyers/consumers and sellers, just at different stages of commerce (so to speak). While in school they are buyers of education (credentials), then while at the job fair (should that be the point of their buying an education) they are sellers of their ability.

    Have I missed something?

    You say, “Yes Shawn, academics/instructors are indeed on the “sell-side” of the platform but they are not vendors. The vendor is saved for parties that we might think of as creators/producers of product that are designed to meet the needs of the demand-side (employers and students/candidates) and are themselves in need of distribution; ala academics/instructors. An author, a researcher, a programmer, and a LMS provider are specific examples of vendors in need of distribution. And some product is delivered most effectively by a real human being; the value of an academic/instructor.”

    But this misunderstands what academics (professors) do for a living/the service they provide. When I was first hired to teach a course at university I (not someone else) was required to develop the course from scratch – which was also exercise of the cornerstone of academia, namely, academic freedom. After many years as a a faculty I might have done research that produced a book that I then constructed a course around and suggested the university adopt and distribute (i.e., advertise in the calendar) for sale to (consuming) students.

    I am afraid you are mistaken. Academics/professors/faculty do indeed author, research and (if you like) program. Their product is then distributed (sold) by universities and colleges to students (and others), who as you observe then sell (them selves) to employers.

    But perhaps I misunderstand you and am happy to continue the discussion.

    Cheers,
    Shawn

Aaron Stark 2014/04/16 at 10:55 am

I support repositioning academics as “edupreneurs,” but I’m back and forth about whether it’s wise to have them, in a sense, signing onto institutions as vendors. While this could have a positive economic impact for both parties (in that faculty could set their own fees and institutions could save on labour relations), I imagine it would also result in fewer resources overall for the faculty. For example, how would they be funded to carry out a study without being connected to an institution?

    Shawn Warren 2014/04/16 at 12:49 pm

    Hello Aaron,

    Thank you for the comment.

    I share your concern about the resources that would be available under the professional vs the institutional model for HE. This concept video might help allay some of your concern: http://vimeo.com/20320782

    Also it is important to recall that I am focusing on public institutions- though the professional model works as well for private and non-secular. These institutions are a public interest, publicly funded and under social contract with society to provide HE. This means that ultimately the state can legitimately dictate the use of institutional resources, including the proper support of adjuncts in the provision of their services. The reason neither the institutions nor the state has done this is the lack of funding – the professional model reduces costs by 50-75% for face-to-face education.

    Keeping this in mind, with respect to research universities and colleges could (independently or under state direction) allocate their resources (which would be hired by professional academics) to support their research. At the same time maybe certain research – say requiring particle accelerators and such – would remain exclusive to collectives of institutions. But of course there is lots of research that does not require such expensive resources…

    With the requisite resources in place research funds are secured as they always have been, on the merits of the academic applicant, as it should be.

    In my research I have found that under the current model large numbers of adjuncts are not furnished even basic resources to provide their services. The institutions that employ them offer limited (if any) access to library services, shared office space (if any), shared computing services (if any), limited (if any) access to equipment, limited (if any) access to office assistance…

    Because of the financial crisis in HE, at this point universities and colleges can barely supply the resources needed by their tenure (and tracked) full time faculty, let alone their adjunct work force. For instance, across the nation institutions have elected to defer necessary repairs on campus facilities – and it is becoming a serious problem.

    Under the professional model this would not be the case and universities/colleges could see an increase in demand for their services and facilities, from the increase in academics that can practice HE under the professional model.

    I would love to continue the discussion…

    Cheers,
    Shawn

Skepitcal 2014/04/16 at 2:27 pm

My biggest problem with this concept is in its circularity.

So let’s assume professors become independent agents of education dissemination. Like Plato, they rove around engaging in dialogue with students without an institution. Great.

But what about professors who specialize in highly unique and off-the-beaten-track fields? Still important to society, but they they do not have the resources to teach the few students interested in their gaining and sharing in their knowledge.

In this instance, I would assume they would band together with other professors in a similar field. This would mean that students can learn about a number of different aspects of the subject matter without seeking out individuals and with the added benefit of creating a unit or conglomorate for professors; they can support one another and feed of eachother’s practice.

For the same of argument, let’s call this union of professors a “department”.

But how does the “department” ensure they can let students, perhaps dispersed across a city, region or country, know that they can come to the “department” to learn their given subject matter? Perhaps all the dispersed departments in a given place band together to form a larger grouping. This grouping, for the sake of argument let’s call it a “university”, could then market on a wide scale, they could share revenues and costs, and create a locus of learning.

Wait, I think we’ve just re-created something that already exists.

The model you’re proposing is literally how higher education started. About 600-700 years ago, further transformation of the university stopped. The way to fix the university is not to return to the days of Plato.

That would be akin to saying the way to fix the broken American economy and national identity is to return to British rule… then get overtaxed… then break out of it again.

    Shawn Warren 2014/04/16 at 5:53 pm

    Hello Skeptical,

    As a philosopher I have to say, great online name, I appreciate your criticism, and the history of my subject has indeed served as inspiration for the professional model (though the professional elements are far more recent (19th c)).

    Your account of the circularity reminds me of the Family Guy episode, “Tea Peter,” where Peter manages to disband the local government only to talk himself and everyone else back into its reinstatement because (among other things) it is more convenient.

    With respect, I think you might not have read all of my reasoning in favour of the professional model (see http://bit.ly/LUNqyK) or perhaps even the reasoning I offer here.

    First, the existing institutions need not be disbanded, though they could be (more on this in a moment). The professional model is in fact a nice fit with existing universities and colleges, offering solid economic reason for its adoption by these institutions (see http://bit.ly/1egMlZw). Because the existing institutions are publicly funded and under the professional model the public stands to enjoy significant cost-savings in the provision of HE, perhaps the public could finance (subsidize) the esoteric fields you mention as at-risk (one of which most people would say is philosophy – though a philosopher sits here offering solution to a major social crisis…).

    Second, if groups of independent professional academics band together to form “departments” or “universities/colleges” – or what are in other professions are called partnerships or firms – then they would in fact not be like the existing HEIs. For starters they would be owned and operated by the academics (or faculty, if you like). Presently academics/faculty are institutional employees and grossly exploited by their employers. Also the economy of the professional model means that such “professional universities/colleges” would not require the public funding that existing HEIs do (and they still cry poor), while survival of the academic firm/practice would demand and receive more frontline care in its finance and operation.

    Third, I invite you to consider how the work I am doing could in fact move HE from the capitalist to the social economy (see http://bit.ly/1aHjVtT). There exist in the world universities that are co-opertives (as there are co-operative run secondary schools). The idea is that by converting faculty to professional, independent practitioners operating private practices within a co-operative the universities you see as inevitable (something I have conceded only for argument’s sake) would be unlike the existing institutions and HE would be sheltered from capitalism.

    Finally, I do not accept your assumption (for sake of argument) that the only or perhaps the best way to achieve peer support, collegiality, interdisciplinary education/research, and the like is through the formation of universities/colleges that offer close physical proximity. Modern technology has dissolved this limitation on human interaction.

    Thank you again and I hope we can continue this dialogue…

    Cheers,
    Shawn

Kevin Carroll 2014/05/15 at 10:44 am

Shawn,

Of course it is obvious that participants play multiple roles at different times with in an ecosystem. In fact, this is seen as an advantage to enable interactions, but not to design a business model as it increases complexity.

IF you are interested in reducing/eliminating the customer’s (i.e. student) greatest pain point–placement quality–then the student is certainly the “seller” of ability and should be acknowledged of such in business model design

IF you are interested in reducing a related but lesser pain point–development quality–then the student role switches to “buyer” of instruction.

The sustainability risk of the business model increases if you focus on completing the customer’s related job-to-be-done (rJTBD)(i.e. not the customer’s greatest pain point). Here’s why: Reducing/eliminating the customer’s greatest pain (i.e. their #JTBD) is highly monetizable. Completing the customer rJTBD is not so much.

To carry this forward, if a competitor attracts your customer, the learner, by completing their job-to-be-done (JTBD) (i.e. reducing/eliminating their greatest pain point)–placement quality–you can be assured that, in time, they will make designs to complete the customer’s rJTBD–development quality. IF they succeed you will be at a distinct disadvantage.

Evaluating the human capital development and placement ecosystem in total it becomes clear that instructors are perhaps the greatest distribution layer EVER created by man’s design. Yes, it is of course obvious that some instructors create content that is monetizable and distributed by other instructors.

Therefore, I can not let you get away with stating “…product is then distributed (sold) by universities and colleges to students…”. Only a university’s or college’s representative can “sell” or rather “distribute” content as instruction. We know that role as “instructor” (Teacher/Professor/Academic/Faculty).

Also, to apply a human role to an institution only serves to communicate that it is valuable in some way valuable other than a industrial age system to coordinate activity. As a coordinator of activity in an environment of cost gravity (thanks to technology) institutions are being replaced by distributed systems that coordinate activity for individuals to compete (i.e. deliver value to customers more efficiently and effectively) against institutions quite favorably.

Shawn, I am focused on and arguing for completing the customer’s JTBD (i.e. reducing/eliminating their greatest pain point–placement quality) which makes my labeling of roles precisely correct.

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