When the iconic Harvard Business School (HBS) was planning to launch its digital learning platform HBX, I distinctly remember my classroom discussion on the future of brick and mortar universities in a session facilitated by a legendary management faculty at HBS. I was part of the class during my study at HBS and took a strong position on why brick and mortar institutions are eternally relevant and technology disruptions at best are positive influencers and not potent substitutes.
A look at HBS’s recent three-year-data summary proves my point. Despite HBX’s increasing enrolment, the application and enrolment to the classroom-based MBA and executive education programmes have constantly been increasing. The revenue from HBX is insignificantly small when compared to HBS’s traditional revenue drivers—publishing and full-time campus programmes.
This is not a phenomenon unique to HBS but to many leading universities across the world, including the Indian Institutes of Management. Will online and digital re-imagination of higher education marginalise brick and mortar institutions? The definite answer NO raises a follow-up question whether all institutions are like HBS and its peers. They are not but still the role of focused education in a physical ecosystem is extremely relevant. When winds of change blow hard, the society needs both the best build windmills and the rest shelters.
Without getting into a debate on the falling value of a degree, we need to understand the thought process behind the policy-making driven by special committees, presently dominated by second innings academics. Born out of these committees are some policy output such as the Institutions of Eminence (IoE) regulations, Open and Distance Learning (ODL) regulations, Deemed Universities (DU) regulations etc., and yet-to-be-formulated Higher Education Commission, New Education Policy, National Test Facility etc.
All of these new policies are good in intent but loaded with plenty of issues to be resolved concerning 10 important features of higher education (according to Pearson’s study titled ‘An Avalanche is Coming’)—Research, Degrees, City Prosperity, Students, Faculty, Governance and Administration, Curriculum, Teaching and Learning, Assessment and Experience.
The least common denominator unfortunately in all the policy thought processes is the unfathomable desire to address all the 10 issues in every new regulations in higher education. In some cases, the very purpose and idea of the regulations is lost. For example, the IoE regulations miss the basic premise that start-up successes happen in the business and political world and not in the academic world. That is why pre-World War institutions such as Yale, Harvard and Oxford with exceptions like Stanford and Dartmouth are today world-class due to their evolutionary performance and not by rationed declaration, as the IoE proposes to do. On the other hand, many of the influential and valuable corporations such as Google, Amazon and Facebook are not more than 20 years old. The present IoE, ODL and DU regulations need a rethink.
Is Uberisation of higher education possible? To say that online will replace brick and mortar is baseless as digitised atomisation of universities into educational bits and bytes is only one specific model. The needs of stakeholders are diverse necessitating the need for elitist or mass or niche or local or online/open universities. Unbundling university models is necessary and only those that have the capacity can universalise and the rest need to stay focussed. Anybody cannot become everything. Is anybody listening?