Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Universities and Colleges as Vendors for Professional Academic Practices


The topic of outsourcing or vendor partnerships is important if your interest is in maintaining the current institutional model for higher education – a triad consisting of university/college service providers, public funding and union labour representation.  I am not.

The editors of January's issue of Evolllution note that the cost of delivering higher education is skyrocketing as institutional operating budgets continue to decline.  I believe the institutional model is simply not sustainable, nor does it adequately serve the needs of life long learners and non-traditional students.

I think it is time for radical change - a completely different perspective.

From the perspective of the professional model for higher education I am developing, universities and colleges are the vendors and professionally licensed academics in private practice their customers.  Students directly hire academics for their services – as they would a physician, accountant, veterinarian or psychiatrist - while academics hire universities and colleges for services they determine are relevant in the operation of their practice.
This is a radical inversion of the traditional relationship between institutional employers and faculty union represented employees of the triad.  However, it is a reorientation with much to recommend it.  As starters:

1) It underscores the largely ignored fact that universities and colleges do not provide higher education, but merely facilitate its provision.

2) It acknowledges the frequently overlooked fact that it is academics who provide higher education through the fundamental education relationship formed between themselves and students.

3) It allows many more academics to provide higher education of various kinds and service many more demographics and interests than can possibly be accommodated by the triad model - even at its peak of public support – thereby expanding access. 

4) It places the decisions regarding what services and facilities are needed or wanted for the provision of higher education in the hands of those on the frontline providing the service, namely academics professionally licensed to operate private practices.

5) It reduces the total cost of face-to-face service by 50-75%, making it more affordable for all stakeholders from students to governments.

Because the professional model removes the university and college as middlemen of the academic/student education relationship, institutional management would be transformed.  For instance, as universities and colleges would no longer hire academics or admit students departments such as Human Resources could be reduced, while Admissions and Registration departments could be eliminated.  There would also be no need of upper administrative positions such as Academic Vice Presidents and Deans.  Universities and colleges could instead concentrate efforts on providing the support services demanded by their professional academic customers.

In removing financial barriers and other typical triad limitations on the number of academics and students who can engage higher education the professional model would encourage more efficient and competitive use of the existing publicly established and maintained institutions.  The physical campus facilities of most universities and colleges (e.g., labs, classrooms, and conference rooms) are underutilized, being vacant for as much as 70-80% of the time.  This is space that professionally licensed, independent academics could lease in the operation of their private practice.

As is made clear by this edition of Evolllution the array of services and facilities necessary or desirable in the operation of a professional higher education practice can be readily found in the wider community as well – everything from application and evaluation services to student residence and recreation facilities.  From the perspective of the professional model this fact encourages universities and colleges to become more competitive and concerned with quality, since they would no longer be the only game in town.

The effects of competition, including attention to efficiency and quality, would also be found at the level of the professional academic practice.  With more academics in circulation there would likely emerge specialized practices catering to non-traditional students, life long learners and others, as prescribed by the market.  The fact that under the professional model the livelihood of academics depends directly on the health of their practice would make them acutely aware of the need for greater efficiency in use of resources and the quality of service, in turn putting pressure on vendors – both public institutions and private companies – to be more competitive.

In closing out this hint of the change that can be brought about through the professional model it is important to note that while this is fundamental change it does not necessarily mean the dissolution of traditional universities and colleges.  The professional model can function alongside the institutional model and actually offers economic incentive for traditional institutions to partner with professional academics in private practice - making professional academics the vendor and institutions the customer.

For instance, in light of the current austerity in higher education the reality is that public institutions cannot afford to expand faculty or facilities to accommodate more students.  However, the professional model can make available to institutions an unlimited number of academics that provide higher education for 50-75% less than the triad or for what amounts to the advertised price of resident tuition.

In light of this if the brand name of a university or college and perhaps some of its services or facilities were provided for a fee to professional academics in the operation of their independent private practice expansion could be accommodated.  Further, since the professional model requires only the revenue from resident tuition to operate, it opens to the host institution the full economic potential of the non-resident student market - with room for mark up.

Currently international students make up a very small fraction of enrolment at universities and colleges in the US and elsewhere, in part because these students must pay the full cost to provide their education – usually 3 to 4 times the price of resident student tuition.  Operating at the rate of resident tuition alone, the professional model increases the tuition price margin for universities and colleges that use professional academic vendors, with no need to expense more services or facilities to accommodate the increase in students and academics.

And since international students are not only an excellent revenue source for institutions but also for governments there is also incentive to publicly encourage such professional vendor partnerships.

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