The capacity of universities

George Siemens bemoans the emerging trend that “higher education is not in control of its fate as it has failed to develop the capacity to be self-reliant in times of change”. Referring to a dilution of the stance against corporatization, and the way external innovation is driving change at the academy, George may just be right.

In my experience with universities, the pace of change is extremely slow. Maybe it is the product of excessive intellectual rigor, but it is slow. It is surprising that it is slow given that education is a prime objective of these organizations and one would expect that they be ahead of the curve in anything that a corporate might throw at them.

It is not that there is no innovation or that some universities are not ahead of the curve already, but it is a general sentiment that I share from experience.

What are the causes? 

I think (in my experience so far and may not be very generalizable) a main cause is systemic – the bureaucratic processes of governance coupled with a healthy dose of ignorance contribute to the extremely slow pace of reaction and action. The second cause is an arrogance that what exists is the best way to be. The third cause is blind mistrust of everything for-profit, as if employing intellectual property created by for-profits is something to be totally suspicious about (or looked down upon). The fourth cause is the ability to stifle innovation through politics and the threat of conformance, sometimes hiding behind procedure. The fifth cause is not enough thinking (and expertise) about the teaching process; the focus is more on each individual subject/discipline.

The for-profits have not done enough to allay the fears either. Over promising and under-delivering, delivering problems more than solutions, salivating at size & recurring revenues are accusations that can be made.

Education is not only a public domain. To the extent that it is a State responsibility, the State must ensure that capacities are built up to navigate new terrains. What I see around me is lip service when it comes to teacher training and a three letter word called ICT. To the extent it is a corporate goal, for-profits must realize they need to build far greater credibility and demonstrate far greater responsibility to the domain and all that they impact.

But by far, apart from the student, the most important stakeholder today is the teacher. The teacher forms, whether in for-profit or otherwise, the core around the learning experience and the most visible force in its implementation. By enabling students, by continuously evolving, by exploring the connectedness of knowledge and by deliberating openly on technologies, processes and techniques that impact the learning experience, will teachers be able to drive change.

I don’t think teachers realize the power they own in changing the learning experience. Looking at what is happening closer home, I see that they are content using their power to stay in the same place unmindful of the explosive pace being generated around newer ways of teaching and learning (and even of developments in their chosen field/discipline!). Both the for-profit and non-profit organizations are exploiting that non-use of power.

This must change.

2 thoughts on “The capacity of universities

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  1. Hi Viplav;
    Thanks, you meanderings prompted these thoughts. With Agriculture and manufacturing settling in at around a combined 20% of the workforce and productivity growing in the service industries (witness growing profits in the face of a reduced workforce) and you can see the cause of great angst in the general population. Education is touted as a panacea for the un- and under-employment, but traditional education and the disciplinary structure is not designed with the flexibility to align with and solve vocational problems directly. That many business people say they can’t find the high functioning employees they need reinforces a reason to look toward education, but I’ve never seen anyone look into this problem in a way to understand it in depth. I think society sometime recognizes problems unconsciously, before they are completely understood, just like individuals do. I think this is generating the angst and is part of what’s going on.


    1. You are so right Howard. I met a senior official at the National skills Development Corporation in India ( Their mandate is to train 150 mn people in the next 10 years and they have an extensive sector-by-sector skill-gap and manpower requirement repository (which I have read in some detail). India’s problem is 3-4 times that number (and growing). The first reaction they have is to convert to electronic means (because that is what scales). When I told him that I don’t want the same kind of plumber or electrician as the traditional methods are spawning (:)), he was stuck for a response. Guess he had never looked at it that way before. It is also an attitude that “get the network there, make some *e*stuff and they will learn”.

      Equipment/Hardware based vocational training could particularly benefit from use of virtual environments powered by some strong haptics – that is one way to scale the “e” way – a visual, hands-on medium. For other vocational streams, there may be other effective ways to bring learning. Simulations are a strong candidate – I am betting on those for two broad roles – sales and customer service – in the corporate environment, across different verticals. The local community leverage is an even stronger candidate when aligned with national interests in some way.

      But after all this talk, if there is no employability, we are back to ground zero. It raises the level of angst that you mention and no level of State intervention can help mitigate that. In my opinion, scale must meet scale, education must become a social business, local contexts must be leveraged to ensure quality and productivity, and, the network must reduce the information asymmetries that still resound in the developing world.


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