University Education as a Consumer Good

IMG_20130322_081358It’s an interesting thought. What if one day, you select a university education by comparing prices, facilities, location, bundled freebies, guarantees, loan schemes, and reviews? What if one day, your university education is purchased just like you purchase other expensive consumer product or service? Like a car, or a 1 year body slimming package? Universities go out to advertise their courses and degrees, offering promotions and discounts, frequent flyer miles, free computers?

I recently attended a talk “The Tower and the Cloud”, given by none other than the editor of the book of the same name. The book is basically a compendium of essays on how the emergence of the networked information economy has or will impact higher education, as well as the IT organization in higher education. The talk is about some of the ideas covered in the book.

Several years ago, we talk about living in the Internet generation. Today, technology is moving even further ahead. Social networking is the rave. People are making use of cloud computing more than ever. Technology is bridging distances, breaking down walls. All these changes are putting more power in the hands of consumers, and we’re beginning to find more and more things becoming consumerized. Yes, that may just happen with university education too, if it hasn’t already begun.

Ten years ago, students in our universities are like products. Or perhaps they are the raw materials which the universities turn into products. Today, students are customers. Customers want choice, they demand service, they have complaints, they need relationship management. We are already seeing a lot of these traits happening in universities now.

Government want standards, universities are concerned about their ranking, industry needs shape university courses and curriculum structure. Higher education is no longer a tower in the sky.

Picture this. Some authority somewhere sets the standard for what constitutes CS1101 Introduction to Computer Programming. They define the curriculum, the lesson structure, the method testing and evaluation. Any university can teach CS1101. Any student can take a CS1101 module from any university. They can take the exam, possibly at a different place, and passing it means the same thing, regardless of where they took that exam. The same can happen for, say, CS1102 Introduction to Data Structures. So on and so forth. An employer, in their recruitment effort, could ask for qualifications in CS1101, CS1102, and whichever module they feel is required for the vacancy they are trying to fill.

Now let’s think about this a moment. Isn’t this already happening in the form of “industry certifications”? Think, for example, Cisco’s suite of certifications. CCNA, or Cisco Certified Network Associate, as a syllabus, a curriculum, and exam testing standards. You could take CCNA preparatory lessons from any commercial school. You could even study on your own. You then sign yourself up to take an exam from a testing centre. It doesn’t matter where you study, or where you take the test. When you pass, your CCNA certification is the same as any other CCNA certification. No employer cares where you studied or where you were tested.

There is no worldwide standard for what constitutes CS1101. Universities might not like the idea, but I’d guess students, employers, and governments would love the idea. Could we not “open source” the courses? See what MIT is doing with their open courseware. A renown university, perhaps the one recognized as producing the best students from their CS1101 course, will set the standard to determine what CS1101 is. Every other university in the world could take the standard and offer to teach CS1101. Maybe even an individual working out of his home could tutor a handful of students and test for CS1101 certification.

Isn’t it a brilliant idea?

I think students will embrace the choice. Why force a computer science major to study MA1101 Linear Algebra because some higher-up thought it is a fundamental knowledge required of all computer science graduate? Not all students enjoy maths, and they could do many things in computer science without knowing a lot about linear algebra.

For employers, they could now be precise about what job seekers they are looking for. They could perhaps enumerate the skills required: Java programming, TCP/IP networking basics, Unix operating system basics, etc. Wouldn’t this be more meaningful than figuring out the difference between a degree from Stanford University and another from Massachusetts Institute of Technology?

Famous universities will still command some value, at least for now. But this might just change. Does it matter where you studied or were tested for CCNA, MCSE, CISSP, CISA, etc? Universities everywhere are going to rethink their purpose and how they conduct their business in this age of consumerization.

2 Responses to University Education as a Consumer Good

  1. What you have said has already happened hasn’t it? Just not at the university level. All around the world, various people sit the O/A Levels papers, IELTS, TOEFL, SATS, etc. There are pros and cons to this type of system. If a standarization of the courses happen, how do you differentiate the good and the bad? Lecturers would just push for results, making it no different from any normal school or tuition school that you go to. Each subject requires a lot of knowledge to master and it is impossible to grasp everything within one semester which is why it is up to the university to set what to concentrate on. On the plus side, it would mean that any new institutions or ones that are just in bad locations might end up with an increase in registration since people would no longer see the need to travel to the other side of the city just to attend that particular university.

    • You are absolutely right. We did discuss during the talk about the situation with pre-university education, how O levels and A levels and other standardized exams have commoditized things. The values with pre-university levels could be slightly different though. Parents may be concerned that their kids get a sound education foundation (of course, maybe the next generation of parents could think differently).

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