Has Higher Education Lost Its Uniqueness?

 Has Higher Education Lost Its Uniqueness?
As higher education becomes more commoditized, many institutions are partnering with vendors and losing control of the elements that make them most unique, for example, teaching and the content being taught.

Outsourcing and partnerships are becoming popular themes within higher education. While we have outsourced many aspects of the college experience over the years — such as food services, bookstores and some business services — we have not, until recently, toyed with the idea of partnerships or outsourcing other key aspects of the academy. However, unlike other sectors of the economy, it has been assumed, although maybe misunderstood, that there is uniqueness to higher education that makes it difficult to outsource.

As an anonymous contributor to one of the higher education sites recently wrote:

“If we are limiting the value of a college education to the amount of money one earns we are disregarding so many aspects of what it means to have an education. Being educated means you have diverse perspectives, new ideas, challenging critical skills and so much that is not accounted for when you look at your paycheck alone. While money is important, education is not just about money, is about character, wisdom and understanding of how to earn the money in the first place.” [1]

This statement starts to get at the heart of what a higher education is and what it is not. It hints at a special aspect of college not easily outsourced. Higher education is a sum of its parts and not simply a collection of credits or a disembodied large online class (I differentiate here between the new buzz around online from well-structured, smaller online experiences). It is often hard to put your finger on what makes higher education different, or, as a colleague of mine puts it, “the special sauce.”

So the question remains as to what can be successfully outsourced before you lose the ‘special sauce.’ Can you outsource advising or counseling or other services and still have the pieces that make the college experience unique? What about teaching and research? We know there are great research centers in the private sector, so why is it so important to higher education? Can this be outsourced and, if so, what is its impact on the special sauce of the college experience? Or, are we willing to say, for the typical undergraduate student, the benefits of research at our institutions are so far removed from their experience that it may not matter? And what about teaching? Here, it is not a reference to the mix of tenured and adjunct, for if done right, adjunct faculty are a part of the higher education fabric. But it is about outsourcing or partnering with someone else to do the teaching under the umbrella of the institution.

Finally, we should turn our thoughts to some of the recent trends of outsourcing courses (San Jose State University, for example, and other initiatives across California). If we go down this path, would we completely unravel what is unique about higher education? Does it simply become a collection of credits with no coherence in the curriculum? Is this what we want a higher education experience to be?

These are hard questions for the academy and the public to address. While higher education is under pressure from many fronts to control costs, assure students are who they say they are online, prevent financial aid fraud and produce students with the skills organizations want (although this latter point is also one that may drive higher education away from its uniqueness as discussed in the quote above), we should not unravel the fabric of higher education to the point it is no longer the unique experience we value. Thus, perhaps before we have a conversation about outsourcing and partnerships, it is important for all of us to debate and define the higher education experience and what makes it special in this country. We need to do this before those outside the academy do it for us and we wake up one morning, reflecting back on what once was and what it should have been. Or, do you feel it is already too late and the academy has lost its focus on teaching and learning? Have we already lost the ‘special sauce’ of higher education?

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[1] CB III comment on “To College or Not to College,” Higher Ed Jobs, May 3, 2013. Accessible at http://www.higheredjobs.com/blog/postDisplay.cfm?post=431&blog=9&ReplyID=981&show=all

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Readers Comments

Cindy Chao 2013/06/07 at 8:29 am

Shearer asks some provocative questions here, and epitomizes the current dilemma in higher education: how to preserve the uniqueness of higher education with mounting financial pressures? It’s sad to think some institutions might one day be asking questions about outsourcing teaching, which is quite different from forming partnerships, as the latter seems to be more about knowledge transfer opportunities than a desperate attempt to cut costs. I, for one, certainly hope higher education administrators heed Shearer’s advice to discuss the long-term implications before making big changes.

Bill Wright 2013/06/08 at 10:10 pm

I’m going to play the devil’s advocate here and ask: what if the special sauce never existed? What if it was regular ketchup in a special bottle all along? Following this line of thinking, perhaps it’s time for a change in the way we think about the future of higher education. Instead of focusing on what we’re losing with all of the changes in higher education, we should be asking what we want to gain. That way, as we develop new forms of education delivery and new business models, we can build a unique student experience into those elements of higher education. Change doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

    Rick Shearer 2013/06/15 at 3:49 am

    Hi Bill. Your comments are very valid and hopefully will be part of the conversation around what we want Higher Education to be in the future and the value add for the students.

    What I hope for is an informed debate and not the rush to adopt what may appear as quick fixes to finances or other pressing concerns.

    Thank you for you insights.

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