Whether we like it or not, higher education has become commoditised.  It is about economics, dollars and cents (or lack of sense). It is no longer free. For many in the academy it is about bringing in stipends, grants and awards – a publish or perish lifestyle (much of what is published should be perished). Students incur substantial expense for the privilege of the experience ‒ the fiscal wherewithal most often a gift from parents who also dream of the day their child will be independent. Education is marketed as improving wealth and health, for which we in the academy proudly highlight evidence to correlate the claim. Higher education is proclaimed as necessary because graduates earn more throughout their life than those who do not have an advanced degree. Generally, this is true, but we quite conveniently forget about boom societies, such as witnessed in Australia, where trades professionals and unskilled labor can earn as much or more than university-trained office workers. Education is necessary ‒ but what is being offered within the educational process is no longer sufficient.

Moreover, in Japan, where I have spent a good deal of my higher education life, many students should not even be at university. University entrance exams are proclaimed to sort the students into those capable from those who may not be so capable. I will overlook the fallacy that these exams generally are only sorting tools for those who will be able to survive the stagnant Japanese (business and social) culture from those who would do better pursuing a career elsewhere and on a different pathway – for life! – to highlight that at times the results get “adjusted” and “justified” to ensure that the “bums on seats” quota is attained. A failure to do so would bring the wrath of the Ministry, seemingly more frightening than the prospect that less students means less profit. However, it would be remiss of me to place the blame solely on the student for they are merely products of the system that is antiquated, failing to stimulate inquisitiveness and self-inspired acquisition of learning potentials. I will consider this topic in other blog where I can provide further reading to support the position.

If we were to design a universally agreed upon rubric for “acceptable” knowledge acquired throughout university, measured by assessment instruments that draw on application of that knowledge (declarative and procedural memory) – output proficiencies – many institutions may discover that they have inadvertently positioned themselves within the Degree Mill business. It is easy to tar all with one brush stroke, and I apologize to those institutions that are leading the way in creating the futures, such as Stanford, MIT, Cambridge etc. etc. etc. to even small, mostly unheard of institutions that at least have educational philosophies in place to equal the more prestige institutions, such as Hakodate Future University. However, many institutions are merely talking the talk but only the facade is changing, especially evident in societies that promote image over substance. Many institutions claim the new “business-speak” but the reality is thin when tested.

Alignment is important in many areas of our daily life. Astrologists speak of an alignment of the stars that will bring good (or bad) fortune and opportunities. Architects and builders understand that beams and foundations need to align to strengthen structures (besides, it is awkward living inside a house with a sloping floor or table or benches). Archaeologists use alignment as secondary evidence to associate features. Data structure aligment in computing refers to arranging data in memory to fit the designs of machines. In physiology and sports aligning the placement of bones correctly is so the muscles do less work. And we align the wheels of our cars to improve performance (and stop that annoying vibration that comes at higher speeds). Aligning the culture of institutions and organizations is no less important. Papke (2014) succinctly discussed the importance of aligning organizations with culture, employees, and customers in his book True Alignment: linking company culture with customer needs for extraordinary results. Papke argues that the“extraordinary companies and teams are those in which the what, why and how are aligned”. Great strategic thinking in higher education has been by those who were able to connect future visions to strategies that connect what, why and how amongst all the diverse and competing interests.

The problem is that a “ brand”  in higher education is not merely selling a product, much the way Sony or Microsoft sell merchandise; it involves careful consideration of the discipline, the research, knowledge in and across educational domains, delivery, service and the hopes and promises offered to the consumer ‒ the student. The term “human capital” is sometimes used to explain “who” students are and their relationship to the wider society. The human capital jargon is based around business and economic mindsets. However, the evidence is at best spurious that the training students are receiving at higher educational institutions, in either STEM or non-STEM-related programs is commensurate to the extravagant fees paid for the privilege of the experience. Perhaps for the Humanities and Social Sciences vis-a-vis STEM (another blog to follow on the STEM v non-STEM discussions) Williams (2002, p.59) succinctly captures the matter: “a major challenge facing higher education is that it cannot tell the public or politicians anything meaningful about the most important result of a college education, that is what students learn.” Well, we could, but we perhaps we have ourselves to blame for the predicament (especially if Japan is an example).

One emerging trend in higher education that causes me some concern, particularly in East Asia, is for institutions to opt for structural adjustments, changes to the façade, rather than practical systemic audits to attract and develop the human capital. A contradictory experience for the student results from the misalignment, especially for the international student, who may want to learn of and in another culture, but may have goals and objectives different to the acceptable less-than-sufficient practices of host cultures. As I sit here at Starbuck’s drinking my latte with an extra shot (anybody else have this need?), I am reminded of the lesson higher education could learn from the company – and Apple also springs to mind. Starbucks is not a coffee shop: it sells an experience, which just happens to include coffee. Apple also provides a useful analogy: although the costs to own an Apple technology are way overblown (even though I am caught hook, line and sinker owning all Apple technology), customers are prepared to outlay the money because the brand “Apple” brings intangibles that bridge the gap between production costs and sales pricing. Perhaps, this is what Stanford U.’s D-School or MIT Media Lab amongst others are able to achieve. Those higher educational institutions that have both prestige and profit are able to claim that the intangible benefits (name, brand) justify the costs and any gap between educational training and eventual workplace skills (at least, the graduates portray that image and are therefore in demand). The remaining bulk would have a difficult task to “prove” the fees justify the experience.

Higher education is important and the institutions are valuable resources, but like many organizations, they (we) are struggling to come to grips with the new paradigms emerging. Students are acutely aware that macro and mesa level variables are not in alignment with their micro level reality. Developing higher educational institutions is complex and difficult ‒ and even more so for developing economies still to develop I- or T-type learners, or those developed economies that have too many sunk costs in I- and T-type learners to invest in π-type learners.

Simple corrections can be made and solutions are available (see π3 Training Tab above).

To be continued…

Papke, E. (2014). True Alignment: linking company culture with customer needs for extraordinary results, AMACOM: New York

Williams, H.M. (2002) The ever Increasing Demands Made on Universities in the United States by Society and Politicians, in As the Walls of Academia are Tumbling Down, Werner Z. Hirsch and Luc E. Weber (Eds). pp. 53-61, Economica: France

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