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The Future of Big Ed

Will the higher education of the future resemble the changes transforming the medical industry?

I read recently a remarkable article in The New Yorker by Atul Gawande called “Big Med.” It tried to outline where medicine might be going next.

Given spiraling costs, increasing demand, and lax quality controls, Gawande makes it clear that medicine will—and probably has to—go through a series of changes that will move it from being a craft industry to something that much more closely resembles a conventional industry. He outlines clearly the costs and benefits: “We’ve let health-care systems provide us with the equivalent of greasy-spoon fare at four-star prices, and the results have been ruinous. The Cheesecake Factory model represents our best prospect for change. Some will see danger in this. Many will see hope.”

Perhaps we are starting to see something like this process of change taking place in American and British higher education, too. It is possible to see a new political economy of higher education coming into existence born out of the huge increase in students around the world, as well as boosts to university research funds and the prevalence of information technology that allows lower transaction costs and more syndication. Whether we like it or not, higher education will almost certainly follow something much closer to a mass-production model as it scales up even further. The only question to be answered is, what kind of industrial model?

On one analysis, all we are seeing is the instigation of a market. But as anyone who has ever studied the topic knows too well, there are all kinds of markets, and producing a market requires sustained regulatory attention over many years to produce all of the paraphernalia of exchange. Added to this, markets are always surrounded by a corona of intermediaries like consultancies, as well as infiltrated by numerous producer interests. Some markets may work well, but all require continuous attention to ward off market failure.

So what might an industrial model of higher education look like? Rather like Gawande’s Big Med, where we see the powers of syndication coming to the fore. Large numbers of customized choices can be delivered efficiently and well through the production of greater variety, better quality, and lower cost by chain stores that are able to leverage their size. It is rather like a process of removing from the computer keyboard all those keys that no one ever uses.

What I think we will see is this same chain model gradually taking over higher education. There will still be craft models of delivery—just as there are high-end restaurants—but increasingly conglomerates will rule the roost, made up out of universities that were formerly independent entities. These conglomerates will be public-private entities based on supplying performance-based contracts financed by government and on meeting demand from individual consumers who will have large arrays of information about quality variability available. The days of relying on block grants from government will pass.

There are obvious questions to answer so far as this political economy is concerned. Can education really be reduced to a fungible commodity? What models of industrial organization can be transferred readily? Will it be the established producers that win out or the more nimble higher-education equivalents of a Mittelstand? Again, will there be a redistribution of the higher-education division of labor? Where do the skills lie in the new production chain? How will standardization take place? What, for example, is the higher-education equivalent of the nurse-practitioner?

Like many, I don’t find this vision of the future to be a particularly inviting or attractive one—to put it but mildly. But for those who live outside the laagers and compounds of the few elite universities, it may well be their lot in years to come. If we don’t like it, then we need to propose real alternatives, not just protect what to many from outside higher education looks like a status quo that is already frayed around the edges. See, for example, the case of the setting up of the new Council for the Defence of British Universities and this vitriolic response. The challenge is not to just complain but to propose something better. That challenge is urgent.

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