Looking From The Outside In: Identifying Higher Ed’s Major Stumbling Blocks

The EvoLLLution | Looking From The Outside In: Identifying Higher Ed’s Major Stumbling Blocks
The higher education sector is facing a number of severe roadblocks that stand in the way of its long-term viability and capacity to serve the high expectations and unique needs of today’s students.

“When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it. … Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

– Steve Jobs

This is the war cry of a generation—more than one actually. Steve Jobs is one of my heroes; I’m proud to say I always bought into what he stood for and have used and owned Apple technology since the early 90’s when it was definitely not sexy. I’m happy to admit I don’t even know how to use a PC. It has been Apple everything for me for more than 30 years.

So I was disappointed to read a blog post by academic author Frank Donoghue, called, Idolizing Dropouts: the Real Issues. Donoghue implies that Steve Jobs’ enormous success should be attributed to those special gifts he possessed that the rest of us are deprived of. “You’ve either got it, or you haven’t” is the sad message I walked away with. Donoghue’s post was a response to the release of Michael Ellsberg’s bestselling book, The Education of Millionaires, which is highly critical of the current postsecondary system. Donoghue appears to take pride in the work that has already been done to “demolish” Ellsberg’s book by his colleagues, missing Ellsberg’s point entirely, while his own superior attitude was made quite clear.

One would think that Steve Jobs, the misfit himself who walked his own path would be the best judge of what was behind his own success. He was very vocal throughout his career about what it takes, and formal education as we all know played no role. There is an extreme arrogance in applying academic rigor to deny Steve Jobs—or anyone else, for that matter—of their own life experience. It’s the kind of arrogance that makes us mere mortals just get up and walk away from the discussion, and in increasing numbers, from higher education itself.

The truth is that anyone who is anyone these days attributes their success to a skill set they learned outside of the system. And that is a problem that won’t go away by “demolishing” the arguments in typical academic style. Quite the opposite, it’s compounding the issue.

So one year out of marketing higher education, having spent that time with my head buried deep in entrepreneurship and mindset training, I thought it was time to come back and share what I see from the outside, now looking in.

A Sector Not Focused on Results

“You’ve been fed a lie. The lie is that if you study hard in school, get good grades, get into a good college, and get a degree, then your success in life is guaranteed. This might have been true fifty years ago. But it is no longer true today.”

– Michael Ellsberg

 The question this generation always asks is, “Who are you and what have you done?” When it comes to credibility your results are the first thing we look at, which are all anyone needs to have a voice in the new economy.

Those of us that have spent any length of time in higher education know that delivering results are not a strong point. Yes, education is a public good: I wouldn’t have spent most of my career marketing higher education if I didn’t agree. It’s time however for a wake-up call. The critics outside of the system are loud and extremely influential. Those on the inside that choose to respond by undermining the credibility of the messenger while failing to acknowledge the fundamental challenges are damaging the public image of the entire higher education sector.

Universities cannot continue to charge students the price of a small mortgage to get a degree, only to have them graduate into a market absent of the opportunities that they were promised. Students have every right to expect a financial return on their considerable investment. And while the sector laments its demise and debates its purpose, little is being done to address the problem. There is only one question that needs to be answered right now: “How does the sector intend to solve this problem for graduating students, whose fees they rely upon to keep them afloat?”

Fewer and fewer industries survive by defending such a position in a demand-driven economy. If the current players don’t solve the problem, someone else will.

It’s that simple.

A Culture Built on Reliance

“Education is not about putting something in; it’s about calling something forth.”

– Iain McGilchrist

Students enter the system reliant, and they leave the system reliant. Unfortunately, in the new economy where change is a constant and resilience is critical, that’s a big problem.

It doesn’t matter how bright young people are. Graduates who don’t possess a mental toughness and a mindset wired to grow through challenge have no anchor. They simply don’t know how to get back up when they fall. As a result, opportunity walks right on by while they sit around licking their wounds, paralysed by a sense of failure that a true entrepreneur learns to wear as a badge of honor. The world of entrepreneurship and leadership training knows that mindset is critical to success and is not fixed. Emotional intelligence should be valued by any industry tasked with providing young people with the opportunity to succeed. The many years higher education has spent denying that equipping students with soft skills was its responsibility, are finally going to come back to bite them. Graduates can no longer count on a soft corporate landing and must be able to stand on their own two feet.

They Just Don’t Get Entrepreneurship

“Formal education will make you a living; self-education will make you a fortune.”

– Jim Rohn

Entrepreneurship is a mindset, not a business model. It is not enough to have a good idea, you need to be able to execute, and that’s tough and no one is holding your hand. Success in the new economy requires a different kind of intelligence that is looked down on by those in the ivory tower.

Graduate level entrepreneurial programs are a recent appearance in the Australian higher education market. These formally structured “evidence-based” programs create an impression that we need all the ducks to line up before we take one step forward into a new business venture. By contrast, in the real world of entrepreneurship such a tactic would be considered the surest way to death by procrastination. There is no certainty out there. Entrepreneurs don’t get paid to contemplate the possibilities; if they are not “doing” they are not earning. They learn on their feet. The sector’s marketing tactics for these expensive master’s programs betray a kind of “me too” response that at best could be considered naïve and at worst opportunistic.

Intellectual Snobbery

“What matters is the evidence, not who presents it.”

– Brian Martin and Majken Jul Sørensen

 It’s a blind spot, the kind that has permitted a whole sector to deny the everyday experience and reject contribution from those who lack academic credentials, and it’s worn really thin. Higher education is now positioned on the loosing side of a great tug of war. All those years ago the rope was pulled too far off centre to the advantage of the so-called “experts, authorities and bureaucrats” and in the eyes of many they failed our planet and its inhabitants miserably while lining their own pockets. Now is the big pull in the opposite direction, and there is an enormous amount of weight behind it—it will not be stopped.

Despite the best of intentions, engagement has never been the higher education sector’s strong point. They teach. They don’t yet know how to listen and learn from the general population. And as a marketer I say with full confidence that whether that snobbery is real or perceived is irrelevant because perceptions are everything. Higher education’s failure at a global level to engage in social media for anything more than the most rudimentary of purposes has seen them absent from the critical conversations that have shaped our future. Still now the sector looks to their own for the answers to what is certainly a global education crisis, while the answer lies elsewhere. At graduate level, the disrupters are already out there. Those that are solving the problem have the potential to pull the rug out from under the entire sector, and it seems they are not even on the radar.

 A Perfect Storm

“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

– Albert Einstein

The challenges facing higher education are enormous. A steady and continuous decline in government funding, looming deregulation in Australia, student debt that will never be repaid, loss of market share in traditional international markets where students increasingly have the option to study closer to home, MOOC’s, the rise of the digital economy and online learning, and the struggle to stay relevant in a world where the future workforce looks quite different and is continuously evolving. It’s starting to sound like a perfect storm.

In the US, Canada and the UK the situation is critical, and retention rates are hovering close to 50% in some US universities. Students who are reliant on the system will continue to enrol in higher education until they find some other way, and will leave as soon as they have an alternative. In a world where skills are likely to be of more value than credentials, there will soon be plenty of alternatives that will deliver results that don’t financially cripple a generation that has not yet found its feet.

Here in Australia we watch a sector propelled into an endless cycle of restructuring and downsizing. A dramatic cultural shift needs to take place in order for any structural changes to stick. The shift in mindset required for that to happen would pose the greatest form of disruption the sector has ever witnessed. A university’s capacity to address the cultural dinosaurs that stand in the way of innovation will determine who survives what’s coming. Like Steve said, the solution is to think differently. There are answers, and for some, opportunity. Survival requires what Andrew Winston would describe as heretical innovation—the kind that sees an entire industry firmly embrace what they fear most.

Those that continue to stand and defend their present position need to consider that protecting the public good in education requires them to address what’s not working. Right now, tertiary educators across the globe are fully aware they are preparing their students for careers that won’t exist upon graduation. The inability of the sector to act decisively to reverse the plight of our graduating students won’t be tolerated for much longer. Higher education must find a way to deliver what it promised.

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