Online learning and massive open online courses (MOOC) have meant learning content is now easily accessible to all. In many instances access to information is actually free. This is forcing universities to rethink their place in the educational ecosystem and the value they provide to their clients.
In a world where information is free and government funding is constrained, universities have had to find new sources of revenue. While rankings based on research will remain important, finding ways to fund that research is becoming ever more complex. Increasingly, universities have had to embrace commercial realities and become businesses. Subject to the same conditions as businesses, they are being forced to ‘compete’ and the pressure to differentiate themselves and add value for their clients is mounting.
Competing against their natural competitors, being other universities, is one thing. Competing against new and unexpected disruptive models of education delivered through the internet is something entirely new. The gloves are off, and universities are in a fight for their relevance and survival.
The problem is that many of them don’t realise it yet. To stay in business, like all businesses, they need to be more attractive to their customers: they will need to find a way to ensure prospective students are knocking on the door to get in and that they are cornering the precious few research dollars from industry or government that are available. Achieving this goal starts with one very simple question, but one that many universities struggle to answer. That question is: “Who is your client?”
What would happen if a university could ‘guarantee’ that the students who graduated from their institution would have a better chance of securing an amazing job, and at an excellent salary? Would that university be more attractive to prospective students?
What if that university worked intimately with industry to help industry provide better solutions to their clients and, at the same time, synthesised this information to understand exactly what industry requires of its future workforce, and then used the outcome of this synthesis to coach their students to deliver on that need?
To deliver on this ‘guarantee’, universities need to think about becoming the students themselves. They would have to apply the well-known business principle of ‘knowing your customer inside out’. They would have to understand the needs and the changing paradigms of their students’ prospective employers and then tailor their product (their students) to industry’s needs.
In a study conducted in the US last year, only 23 per cent of employers said that recent graduates are well prepared for applying their knowledge and skills in the real world. If industry will one day provide university students with jobs, then ‘industry’ is arguably a university's most important client.
This is a new way of looking at things. It would challenge the status quo and how most universities see themselves. Most companies view the person who pays their bills as their customer. But, Enlightened businesses are seeing their clients’ customer as the new customer. Successful businesses are focusing on making their clients’ business more successful by making them more attractive to their customer.
The engineering industry, which itself is undergoing significant disruption, would have a far better idea of the sort of engineering graduate they require to remain relevant to their customers than anyone else. If universities are not closely connected to what is going on in the engineering world and what it is that this world requires an engineer to be in terms of skill sets, capabilities and offerings, then how would they know what type of graduate to provide this industry in the future?
If universities are to remain relevant in a world of constant disruption, reimagining who their client is would be a powerful action. If they did this they would interact with industry in totally different ways. Through designing their courses and their campuses differently for interactivity between disciplines, and co-designing them with industry, the result would be students that remain highly relevant to the future of their clients.
Arguably, this is the approach that universities will have to adopt if they are to remain relevant. If they do not, they risk losing the support of their real clients.