The division of labour within workforces and the specialisation in products and services in supply chains have created highly advanced specialisms within complex teams and differentiation between competitors in markets other than higher education.
The journey of going from good to great is often argued to be about concentrating on what you really excel at and letting other people do the rest.
Why have universities been operating against these trends for so long and can they endure? Academic staff in many universities appear to be appointed, promoted and retained based on all-roundedness. The golden formula of 40:40:20 workload allocations, endures in many parts.
And administrative and professional teams extending expertise across a broader range of bureaucratic tasks, student support, business development, technical development, and business operations, are becoming more general rather than more specific in their skill development and task execution it appears.
The emergence of hybrid academic and professional roles in more complex teaching and learning and research settings has the potential to either add to or reduce this level of specialisation.
And what of wider universities? The extent to which they differentiate is significantly restricted it seems by regulation, the nature of competition, and legacy customs and practices, and approaches and ambitions in leadership.
But their appetite for outsourcing compared to growing their horizontal and vertical spans of activity appear to be similarly in tension given the rapidly increasing complexity of university activities, responsibilities and opportunities.
There has been an increasing propensity to outsource areas such as student support, student accommodation, and various campus services. And there is now the enormous opportunity and threat of adopting and applying technology for learning and teaching development, delivery and support.
We all know it is the future but how will we implement and achieve it?
There appears to be a great variability in the way universities are approaching the outsourcing of educational technology services and products as part of their learning program delivery. At one end of the spectrum appears to be a university wishing to retain internal control on all content production, platform development and operational delivery.
At the other end is a university such as Arizona State University which has listed more than 140 tech partners in its family of technological educational innovation.
The range of services and areas of university and learning activity with potential for being outsourced to EdTech is rapidly growing.
The typical patterns of these being internally provided or currently trusted to external providers is difficult to generalise. It varies between universities more on the basis of legacy decisions and opportune responses than to visible strategies or alignment with declared and rigorous core competencies it would seem.
It appears clear that demand for lifelong learning will continue to grow as global economies develop and demands for continuous updating of knowledge and skills accelerate. Unsurprisingly this is generating very significant global investment in education technologies. Much of this investment has been into companies, serving universities in B2B relationships for products and services like those above.
A prime example of this is Cadmus, an organisation that has developed a sophisticated assessment for learning and academic integrity platform being used by leading universities in Australia, the UK and US.
Other examples include Go1 as an Australian-based content curator serving global clients that number universities among them, but also have many employers demanding lifelong learning for their staff.
Indeed, there is much evidence, argued in our most recent episode of HEDx that you can access here, that the dominant EdTech investment right now is in companies targeting the B2C market with products and services which are a direct competitive threat to universities for future market growth in lifelong learning demand.
We appear to be at a critical inflexion point in the investment in and development of global educational technologies. The business models that they will allow and the rises and falls we will see in their prevalence and demand are likely to diverge. This will occur as individuals working in the sector, organisations providing services, and perhaps most importantly market demands, encourage increased specialisation and differentiation in our supply of lifelong learning and its delivery.
This is a time of unprecedented opportunity for global universities and others. There is a very real chance here to get on the leading edge of innovation, disruption and growth. And at the same time, this is a time of very real threat to universities taking the wrong path into an uncertain world, all of which has been accelerated by the rapidity of moves to online learning, caused by, and becoming enduring, due to the social interaction and working and learning practices of a global pandemic.
It is a time for global university leaders to re-examine strategy, culture and purpose in a way that maximises opportunity and minimises threat. It is a time when, as the recent UNESCO roadmap for higher education in 2030 argued, that the most risky way forward is what we have spent too much time doing up until now. That is not taking risks.
First published in Campus Review on 15th June 2022
Emeritus Professor Martin Betts, Co-Founder of HEDx
Herk Kailis, CEO of Cadmus