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How do we measure the world's best university?

What would we consider to be the university making the best contribution to society? And how is it distinct from others in doing that? Has the search for such a title been futile until now anyway? While all claiming to be different, is every university being too much alike by agreeing to be ranked in the same way? And doing so in governed environments that require them all to be largely alike.

More importantly, does the relative lack of drive for innovation in the system leave all open to disruption by providers genuinely seeking differentiation outside the pack? Are universities about to have their own Uber moment in the face of disruptors? This was questioned by Michael Rosemann of QUT, my co-author of our book The New Learning Economy, at a recent AWS event imagining a future of higher education. It was organised by Kevin Bell.

Michael Rosemann of QUT, and Kevin Bell of AWS Imagining Future HigherEd.

One university daring to be very different, absenting itself from rankings, setting its own criteria, and seeking to disrupt a traditional market that excludes equity groups, is the University of the People. It shows great imagination. Results of efforts towards greater equity in access to and completion of higher education are failing globally. In many places they are going backwards. Imagine if that changed.

Founded by Shai Reshef, the University of the People is a tuition-free, accredited, online university with more than 130,000 incredibly diverse students. They include many homeless people who are tragically growing in numbers in both the developed and developing worlds. They also include more than 16,500 refugees among students from 200 countries.

Setting out on a goal of delivering a tuition-free online university won’t win you a place in the global university rankings. But you might learn something along the way that solves an intractable global problem and has lessons for all universities to learn and improve from, while delivering on your and their purpose. As Shai observes in our most recent HEDx podcast, while homelessness and geo-political refugee numbers grow markedly, we would only need each global university to take 15 global refugees each to transform the lives of all of them.

The move towards low-cost alternatives

The University of the People is responding to a growing new market for alternatives to conventional but overpriced university offerings. We are facing a global cost of living crisis, excessive costs of conventional higher education provision, burgeoning student debt, and increasing dissatisfaction with current offerings by learners, employers, parents and governments. These are all ingredients rapidly ripening the scope for disruptive innovation of lifelong learning.

The seminal work on disruptive innovation by Clayton Christensen is increasingly cited as now having its time in the sun with this accelerating change in learning demand patterns. For those unfamiliar with the concept, it is where new disruptors in sectors gain new market entry. They innovate with lower quality offerings, to create and grow new non-traditional markets. These innovators stand out from the crowd and leave the traditional markets and some of the existing providers behind. The low-cost alternative becomes attractive to people who had not previously considered participating in the market. They do things differently.

The University of the People is one of a number of case studies of disruptive innovation under way in global higher education. It celebrates providing tuition-free access to higher education. It does so for groups until now ignored, by access being exclusive to who can afford existing high cost learning alternatives.

A feature of their differentiation is that Reshef has now recruited 42 current and former university leaders as advisory board members to his venture, alongside 14,000 practitioner volunteers. The former halcyon days of free university education live long in the memory of those who benefited from it like Shai Reshef and their volunteers.

I met Shai, along with other global disruptors, at the book signing of Changing Higher Education for Good at the ASU+GSV Summit in San Diego recently.

Shai Reshef with disruptors in Scott Pulsipher of WGU and Rick Shangraw of Cintana at a HEDx book signing.

Many existing global universities and institutions will dismiss the University of the People as irrelevant and of poor quality. There may be some regulators that try to ban it. Australian provider standards would preclude it operating under its title from within Australia for a lack of comprehensive discipline offerings and underpinning conventional research. It has only 3 undergraduate and 3 postgraduate courses, no campuses, and does no research. Remember that different countries and states dismissed and banned Uber when it started too.

Accessing open source technology products and services makes it easier for the University of the People to operate with no tuition fees, supported by volunteer governance and academic advice and tuition. It is an operating model where low costs are made possible by extensive adoption of peer to peer learning among students. Could these innovations be adopted by others? It is accredited in America and its qualifications are being recognised globally.

Is this Higher Education’s own Uber moment?

AirBnB started as a marketplace for renting space on a sofa in a stranger’s house and would have been frowned upon and not seen as a competitor by the 5* hotels of the time. Who could have imagined it would lead to so many personal homes becoming part of global accommodation services? We might think about the relative contribution of that to current global housing shortages as much as blaming international students and migrants. Any Uberisation of higher education might have similar unintended consequences on global migration and skills shortages with the ageing and declining global populations ahead of us.

Eventually, current providers replicate new market features of disruptors, as seen with rideshare services. Taxi companies have transformed booking systems and live tracking at a faster pace following Uber’s disruption of mobility. I had a silver cab turn up for a rideshare booking last week as a taxi licence holder sideline.

Universities might now be having their own Uber moment as we move to new low cost universities providing equity of access to new learners. The current providers that survive such a disruption will need to learn from the disruptors and change makers. What could your university learn from the University of the People?

As with hotels and mobility, it is unlikely that high prestige brands like Harvard or Stanford, or Oxford or Cambridge, or ANU or UQ will be the first or most impacted by disruption. But second and third tier brands might be less secure. And all current providers may have learnings to make from what new entrants do and how they do it.

They may have to give up on out of date models of learning and assessment. The video in this article illustrates an argument for accepting this and changing what we do in response. Asking questions of fellow students and others and learning from the answers to gain skills might just be what we now need to know how to do.

Such disrupting universities would feature nowhere in the rankings, and would have to overcome many attempts by regulators to manage, control or even inhibit it. Just like Uber and AirBnB did.

But they might address the global refugee crisis and future skills needs more effectively than most other current attempts have. Will the university that embraces the Uber moment more effectively than all others really change higher education for good?