Published on 2012/11/30

Industry’s Hyper-Competitiveness Takes Focus Off Social Good Mission

In the pursuit of more students in this hypercompetitive marketplace, higher education institutions are committing their resources toward the most popular programs they offer, meaning they are cutting loose programs that may not be financially sustainable but serve an important social good mission.

Knowledge is the key to economic growth in modern societies. Higher education plays an important role in knowledge production and distribution. The rapid changes in technology use in academe coupled with the funding shortfalls in higher education have been catalytic agents that have contributed to efforts by universities to increasingly respond to market demands. Some question whether market forces have caused universities to become more market-driven in their activities in an effort to compete in the knowledge economy.

The answer is an emphatic YES! Higher education institutions are in fierce competition to attract students and to generate income and profit. Universities have employed strategies to mobilize academic programs, attract students, and provide services throughout the world. As former Harvard president Derek Bok stated, “What is new about today’s commercial practices is not their existence, but their unprecedented size and scope” (Bok, 2004). The public demand for higher education over the past decade has led many institutions to scrutinize their operating procedures to the point of eliminating some courses, majors, or entire degrees that fail to attract critical masses of students. Universities are now engaged in licensing the intellectual property produced on their campuses.

The pressure of federal intervention to improve graduation rates among college students and to reduce the cost of a college education has had a strong impact on admission strategies for both public and private institutions. There is no doubt these efforts serve to increase the reputation and visibility of these institutions. Higher education institutions now seek public recognition by being active participants in mass-marketing appeals such as the U.S. News and World Report-Best Colleges & Universities publication that purportedly identifies the finest institutions in the country.

For-profit institutions have also entered the fray as providers of education for the human capital necessary to maintain and grow the knowledge economy. The proliferation of these institutions in the past twenty years clearly targets the adult student population by creating and marketing flexible schedules, and a learning environment attractive to a student segment unable to access or conform to the settings provided by non-profit institutions. The growth of these institutions was established as a more corporate-level approach to education implemented to respond to market demands.

Finally, and perhaps the most controversial and challenging effort, is the introduction of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) into the mix of universalizing higher education. MOOCs have taken the available technology and provided course content from professors at elite institutions to potentially millions of students around the globe. The shift away from the traditional role of faculty to a direct learning approach for students is very controversial. The impact of the extensive online presence and initial appeal to an international audience has certainly brought recognition to the institutions engaged in providing MOOC courses. Whether MOOCs have staying power, based upon their quality and learning outcomes, is still a judgment call.

The increasing cost of tuition and reduction of federal and state subsidies have allowed market demands to establish a greater foothold in higher education.  Higher education and research institutions will be increasingly urged to transfer knowledge and technology to the corporate sectors in efforts to strengthen productivity, competitiveness, and economic growth. Analytic frameworks for reviewing rapidly changing market demands will be important and viable systems for steering institutions.

However, competitiveness and growth are only parts of a broader set of means to the end of socially sustainable development. Thus, higher education serves the whole society more broadly. Higher education institutions must take on a stronger responsibility for continuous development of the skills and competencies across our societies. Critical thinking skills, justice, social responsibility, and citizenship are still important values the university can teach. Universities must not abandon their roles in providing leadership and direction regarding student learning outcomes and academic standards. Although market demands in the knowledge economy will continue to impact higher education, colleges and universities who sacrifice their academic standards for the sake of greater market share will only serve to further erode our reputation of having one of the finest systems of higher education in the world.

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D. Bok. Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 2.

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Readers Comments

Belinda Chang 2012/11/30 at 9:38 am

One positive side effect of the shift in universities toward a more market-driven approach, is a more customer-oriented experience for students; more and more, gone are the days of university elitism, and increasingly, gone are the days when a student or prospective student was just expected to navigate a confusing and opaque registration and enrolment process, and expected to slot themselves into a limited set of inflexible course and program offerings. If a student encounters a rigid or unhelpful student experience in 2012, they are less likely to just grin and bear it– they have a plethora of other options that want to cater to them and keep them satisfied. Many universities now have response time goals for any inquiry– down to about 5 minutes! Not to mentioned data-driven marketing campaigns that use strategies such as contacting students the way they prefer and at the time of day they like.

Phil Gunnarson 2012/11/30 at 11:58 am

I also don’t think this shift is really worth celebrating–even the “customer service” aspect of it. Sure, it mimics the experience that Americans expect to most all other sectors, but the university can and should set apart; as Mr. Holman rightly points out, the purpose of the university is to make socially engaged, critically-thinking citizens.

These goals are lofty, and they require a certain commitment and a certain integrity of curriculum that risks being compromised in a market-driven, customer-centric environment. In the university setting, the customer is not always right; part of the university’s role is providing something that the individual cannot achieve on their own and might not even know they want– but that is OK! Though I think some changes in a market-oriented direction are inevitable, I hope the university retains its unique character and its purpose as a nation-building and citizen-empowering institution in our society.

Ryan Loche 2012/12/01 at 7:54 pm

The “customer-service” trend can really backfire; the schools that have the most money for these kind of marketing campaigns, and for quick response times to inquiries, are more often than not the for-profit universities, known for sacrificing quality, high dropout rates, and making promises they can’t keep. If more value gets placed on customer-service in higher ed, these are the institutions that may come out on top, and quality and purpose will certainly suffer.

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