Higher education is not the music, travel or news industry

The elections for the university council at my university brought us a new political party that as one of its main points has how to deal with the tsunami of online education that is flooding Higher Education. The ideas of the threats the party sees are more or less in line with McKinsey’s ideas about the dangers universities face from online education. Both draw a comparison to what happened to the news paper, music and the travel industry. According to the new party the solution to blocking the threat lies in offering more “research driven education” as that demands “physical presence of students at the university and strong interaction between students and staff”.

The question is wether there is any merit to the claim that getting a university degree is comparable to booking a trip, buying music or getting the news. I think that there are as least two big reasons why that is not the case.

the role of the middle man
For the travel and the music industry traditionally there was a big role for the so called middle man, a person between the person offering the product (music, hotel, flight) and the person buying it. In the travel industry the middle man was important because he had access to the booking systems that the general public did not have. In the music industry the middle man was important because he took care of the packaging and distribution of the music, something the producer of the music could not easily do himself. It is easy to understand why direct access to booking systems in the case of the travel industry and being able to distribute your (or other mans) music directly on the Internet in the case of the music industry did have a large impact on the role of the middle man.

The question now is do we have a same type of middle man role in Higher Education who performs a function that is now obsolete because it can be easily done by using the Internet? If you reduce the role of the teacher to somebody who simply points the student to the sources of knowledge he needs to master you could say we have. In reality the role of the teacher is much more then that. One example is that selecting the right sources of knowledge for a course requires mastery of the subject you are teaching and is something that cannot easily be done by students themselves. Completely different from the music industry where the buyer of the music is perfectly capable of selecting the music he likes.

Now you could say that this can be done by a few capable teachers per subject and put on the Internet and indeed I think there is some room for efficiency in this part of the work of the teacher. But there is also a real need for diversity in selecting what is vital knowledge to put into a course. Even more so in the current situation where the amount of content has risen exponentially.

Complexity of the transaction
Effort of the student, coupled to the false idea of being able to buy a university degree
Completing a university degree requires a massive effort from a student, even if we take students that do not study a lot (but do finish their degree) they spend at least 700 hours per year, that 2800 hours for a 4 year degree. So to do that online would require you to have the perseverance to do this without the normal supporting environment that a university offers as I have pointed out in a previous post. This is even more the case for students that are new in the university that do not only need the support structure but also a form of guided instruction that I have not yet seen in online education. To make it even more complex after having spend all this time there is no guarantee that you will get your degree as you will have to pass all exams for that.

Now if you compare this to the travel-, news- or musicbusiness it seems evident that the transactions there are less complex then they are in higher education. For music, news and travel you simply buy the song, newspaper or trip that you like best and that is it. You don’t have to spend the amount of time required in higher education to complete the transaction and there certainly is no test at the end to determine if you get what wanted. Actually there are very few businesses like higher education where you pay and in the end might not get what you wanted. Recently with big increases in what individuals have to pay for higher education this last point is getting quite some attention. A lot of the reactions (like the McKinsey article) seem to imply that if you pay that amount you should get your degree. But you don’t buy your degree you buy the opportunity to show that you deserve the degree.

To me there does not seem to be much merit in the statement that what is happening in higher education currently is comparable to that what happened in the news, travel and music industry. For sure what is happening with online education is revolutionary but my bet would be that the main impact will be inside the classrooms of the already existing universities.

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