Academics as Vendors for Universities and Colleges

The piece below was published on The and discusses the possibility of a new relationship between academics and HEIs.  This disruptive innovation presents academics as vendors for universities and colleges in much the same way that administrative and food services are increasingly outsourced by institutions as a cost-saving measure.

The interested parties of higher education have in common a complex goal of reducing costs while improving access to quality education provided in the absence of labour exploitation.

Even so tradition has prioritized the interests of universities and colleges over those of academics, students and society, placing an institutional slant on any attempt at improvement.

From this position HEIs have turned to casual labour, technology and vendor partnerships in order to fulfil their middleman functions with greater economy and scale.  I am developing an alternative higher education model that makes use of these institution-oriented strategies.

To illustrate how consider Josh Boldt’s observation that cable television and higher education have complementary interested parties – providers/institutions, creators/academics, and consumers/students – and that emerging technology and business models are enabling creators of cable content to connect with price weary consumers in ways that put pressure on traditional cable providers to offer better pricing and compensation.  In Canada and the US one consequence of these developments is the “unbundling” of content.

By analogy, universities and colleges are in essence licensed to provide students the only for-credit access to higher education content created by academics.  With decreases in public funding, increases in tuition, poor academic compensation and the introduction of technology new models are emerging that, like the cable sector, unbundle (academic) content from (institutional) providers.

Matt Reed of Inside Higher Education does not buy Boldt’s analogy.  Unlike cable television, higher education lacks local monopolies and well-known, highly desired content that is unique to individual creators or providers.  There is a history department in nearly every HEI, though “from the outside, non-experts (such as prospective students) can’t be expected to know which American history professor is a life-changer and which is merely competent” and so “they rely on institutions to do that screening for them.”

I find both to be too conventional in their thinking.  If we are to improve the state of higher education and better meet the goals of all parties, then what is needed are models that fundamentally restructure relationships.

The alternative model I propose specifies academics offer their services within the tradition of a professional social contract, as do attorneys, physicians, dentists or engineers.  Academic expertise would be offered under the protection and direction of a professional society that affords individuals the liberty to personally (and collectively) represent their own interests as “edupreneurs” operating private practices aimed at servicing students from the traditional to the non-traditional.

With this adjustment universities and colleges would no longer be burdened by the traditional responsibility of providing income, benefits, facilities and services to union represented faculty employees.  As evinced by the rise in managerial, administrative and (non-academic) professional personnel the responsibility for this employer/employee relationship has become a significant public expense in higher education.

Instead the professional response is essentially to distribute across a new academic profession responsibility for these (and other) typical institutional functions.

This new arrangement affords students and HEIs the opportunity to enter (service) relationships with professional academics that improve higher education in ways not possible under the traditional institutional model assumed by Boldt, Reed and virtually all others.

As an indication of the fundament shift prescribed by this model consider a professional translation of these new relationship dynamics in terms of vendor partnerships.

From the point of view of professional academics traditional institutions can be seen as vendors for facilities, equipment and services that academics consume as required by practice management.  Under this business model institutions assume roles already occupied by the wider community.

From the perspective of HEIs academics can be viewed as vendors whose content and services are consumed as required by institutional mission.

Focusing on HEIs, by eliminating the traditional employer/employee relationship institutions (and academics) are at liberty to exercise greater discretion in the formation of casual labour relationships, without the immediate imperative of labour exploitation or expensive administration, management and union representation.  Further, without union enforced employment contracts institutions can respond more effectively to market and economic changes, exercise greater innovation, and better sustain themselves through vendor agreements with professional academics. 
But consider a potential problem Reed identifies in Boldt’s argument to unbundle academics from institutions.  “If professors have to hawk their pedagogical wares individually, I see a bifurcation emerging quickly: a few superstars will do very, very well for themselves, and the overwhelming majority will have to reduce their activity to a hobby.”

As it happens Reed himself provides an adequate response.  Like cable providers, he notes that institutions operate as aggregators and screeners of (academic) content suitable for (student) consumers, and it is precisely this function that enables the current institutional model and the alternative professional model to unite and improve the circumstances for all interested parties.

In addition to what would be provided on the basis of professional criteria, institutions could provide another layer of academic aggregation and screening.  Over time a system of reciprocity would evolve wherein individual professional academic reputation is developed as institutions of good repute retain and endorse their services, while individual academics establish notable public reputations that can in turn bolster the reputation of any institution that retains their professional services.

And though there certainly exist legal, medical and engineering stars no one would suggest, as Reed does, that it is generally difficult to earn a respectable middle-class living in these professional fields.  I suggest the same would be the case were higher education to operate as a profession admitting as many qualified academics as wish to provide the service.

Of course if the MOOC business model succeeds Reed is likely correct, only a handful of academics will prevail.  This would be disastrous not only for the academic labour market but also for the generation and dissemination of knowledge, and the varied access required to service all types of students.  However, this can be avoided so long as we stop myopic endorsement of the institutional model and the union representation it entails and start entertaining fundamentally different models for the provision of higher education.


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