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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

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A business model for universities?

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Universities are in financial trouble, and that is probably an inane understatement.

In many cases, it costs too much to attend them and they are grossly in debt, way over their ability to adequately pay for the resources needed. This is true of most places of learning and especially true of most public institutions. It is even applicable to many private schools. Those who support Jewish education know well of this problem.

But the university issue recently was highlighted in Quebec as students took to the streets and successfully fought an attempt to raise tuition. The increased payment schedule was minor, but the strike was major and some believe it brought down the Liberal government in Quebec.

Funding for universities here has taken a major hit, and there is no reprieve in sight. Solutions are misplaced or ambiguous as everyone ducks the responsibility to fund education. There is a long history both general and particular. Education is not an entitlement, but a responsibility and few are being responsible.

Some have suggested that we should adopt a business model that would streamline our approach to the classroom and to budgetary conundrums. A business model suggests that if you offer a course but not many students register, you cancel that class. Stop producing a product that does not sell. Fire the teacher whose “sales” output is consistently low, and you clean up the budget of non-producing departments. A business model.

But the university is not a business. Its product is education, not jeans!

First, we must find a way to measure that. In fact, I would say we are not necessarily clear on what our product is or on what our end goals ought to be. How do we define an educated graduate? Should they know how to read, or to write an expository essay? Should they be able to get a job in their desired field? Do we help them get a job? What are our goals and do they vary depending on the sector of the university entered into? Should there be some standards for all university graduates?

But wait, maybe we can learn something from a more sophisticated approach to business studies and use a business model.

A business is concerned ultimately with its retail position, with its profit margin. Will people buy what I am selling? So if my product is an education, diversity is good and perhaps some small classes are necessary for some forms of learning. Seminars are quite productive, and we know productivity is a good word for businesses. Even in universities, teachers are rated on their productivity. But the system needs to be overhauled so that quantity is considered alongside quality.

Large classrooms work only in some forms of education. Memorizing and repeat-after-me styles of learning are forged in those environments. But the process of critical thinking and debate requires a different element. Small is sometimes very good for the product. Mixing things up in the university, both at the graduate and undergraduate level, is desirable. We need not be so predictable in our methods and structures. If creative learning is to be initiated, we must establish it.

Furthermore, no business model is built on the concept of the researcher/innovator being the seller/marketer.  Yet the university model clearly expects the professor to do the research and be the teacher. In fact, the prof is expected to also do service; that means s/he is also expected to do the administrative work of a manager. The result of this confusion of roles is that the rewards go to the research part of the job. This is the recognition and mainstay of the job. It is the publish or perish phenomenon.

But it is, of course, a terrible error from our perspective of the product of an education. For our concern should be the education of the students, however defined. And many researchers are terrible teachers; they are not good sales personnel. Yet many departments hire candidates without ever seeing them in a classroom, without any concern for their pedagogic skills. Would you hire someone in your store if they had no experience and you never watched them with a customer?

Whose business model are we following? Is the “business model” of a university all messed up?

We can learn from business, just let’s learn correctly.

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