Competition in Higher Education

A recurring theme among faculty in public higher education is criticism of the “student as customer” viewpoint held by administrators, politicians, and others. Most of the criticism misses the mark in two important ways:

  • A failure to recognize the shift in higher education that occurred, mid-1990s to present, from a sellers’ market to a buyers’ market. In other words, higher education has evolved into a highly competitive market (both between peer institutions and for funding). That has caused a change in perspective which, in turn, changes how all universities are run – for better or worse.
  • The “student as customer” viewpoint has the potential to do good. It can do what past rhetoric – ”It’s all about the students. Students first, always.” – has been unable to do: Focus decision-making by administrators, faculty, and staff on what is best for students.

The “student as customer” in and of itself does not account for why most institutions have gone off the rails of their mission of educating students. Advertising, easy credit to pay for higher education, resort-style amenities, brandingenrollment (sales) growth targets, product (academic program) proliferation, athletics, adjunct teaching, etc. It seems like higher education has turned into the hyper-competitive automobile business. In some ways, it actually has.

A related way to look at what has happened is gamification: Administrators competing against one another as if higher education were a game, much like how state governors fiercely bid against each other to win factories and associated jobs (a race to the bottom for who can give away the most financial and non-financial resources and receive the least in return – and which is where higher ed’s money has gone to). This is how you know a system, whose intent is to do good, is now broken and inadvertently does harm to all stakeholders: students, payers, employers, faculty, staff, etc. When an organization is broken, Lean management is an intelligent choice for its repair.

Top administrators don’t have to play a game. Instead, they can lead efforts to better understand students, payers, employers, and society’s perception of the value of higher education and work hard to improve value and let people know about that. Value in higher education consists of three elements: education, student services and facilities, and administrative processes that students interact with (admissions, enrollment, payment, etc.). All three elements must be significantly improved.

When a market shifts, management and workers have to make adjustments. They can do so in smart or stupid ways. The “student as customer” view can help administrators and faculty make smarter decisions about the product and services offered. Unfortunately, in higher education, administrators’ decision-making has been herd-like rather than informed by critical thinking and with input by faculty and other stakeholders.

The language, motives, and habits of private business – smart or stupid – have entered public higher education, in part because most state elected officials, to whom higher education officials report to, have business backgrounds. To them, everything looks like a for-profit business, even non-profit public higher education. Hence, the over-use of adjunct professors, blocks of courses that transfer across state institutions, standardizing parts of the curriculum, metrics, learning assessments, eliminating low enrollment programs, etc. Some of this is smart, some of this is stupid. The problem is when such decisions are divorced from critical thinking and in the absence of understanding the value proposition among students, payers, employers, and society.

The day arrived some time ago when students and payers began to see themselves as customers, partly driven by their own association to or indoctrination in the language, motives, and habits of private business. Like it or not, that is what has happened, and higher education has had to respond. Hopefully, future responses by administrators and faculty will be more smart than stupid as they have been in the past.

To that end, they should adopt Lean management. The case for Lean in higher education – correctly understood and practiced – is made brilliantly in this article.

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