The Provider of the Future: Agile versus Establishment
When considered in the context of employment and the future of work, leadership in education has never been more important. Technology is rapidly changing the workplace and the jobs required in the future and there is an imperative to adapt our education systems to meet these new challenges. The much debated threat of robotics, automation and machines in the workplace is largely offset by the potential for improved productivity, if education can deliver the right graduates.
This might be easier said than done given the not insignificant challenge of developing a curriculum and creating learning environments to support this high-speed change. Large, established providers who have previously benefitted from their scale and broad academic program, may well suffer death from a thousand cuts, paralysed by bureaucracy and complex procurement mechanisms to deliver the necessary change. This offers a huge opportunity for smaller, more agile educators to claim this ground through specialisation and the currency of their content.
I would expect that this will drive larger providers to review their own capability in this space and could well lead to a period of strategic acquisition and partnership, as well as a shift to focus on cultivating their own bespoke, standalone options. This will act as a means to compete for students looking to study the most relevant courses to improve their own future career prospects. This makes for an interesting time in the sector and first mover advantage may prove crucial.
The New Student: Entrepreneurial and Online
To further exacerbate the situation, student acquisition, engagement and success is becoming more complex as the demand for education evolves to reflect a new digital native generation. Behaviour is changing – consumption of skills and knowledge is evolving. Traditional modes of education will struggle to address the demands of this new customer, determined to build their own experience of learning, no longer bound by the limits of geography, time or a standardised curriculum – all now readily available from online marketplaces designed to
This ease of access to content is likely to shift the dynamic away from providers and place greater control into the hands of the consumer, where many students will decide against front-loading their education at the start of their career and instead use learning to address point-in-time requirements throughout their working life. Resources like YouTube have already shown that individuals are prepared to trust strangers to teach them new skills on demand, to the point that many of us now instinctively choose this option before calling in a trained expert.
This commitment to life-long learning makes complete sense in some vocational and academic streams – why pay to study content over an extended period that may already be obsolete by the time you graduate? Instead, students will prefer to dip in and out of education, curating their own courses that draw content from across the curriculum and with a greater focus on the human ‘differentiators’ like communication and team work. This will act almost as a virtual currency, allowing people to develop and accumulate their learning as an asset over time, build their overall value and protect their employability. Much like currency, these credentials will be portable, able to be converted across borders and recognised in new labour markets.
In this world, education providers will have to work harder to attract students and this inevitably means offering significantly greater flexibility and reducing reliance on enrolments that run over many years. Ultimately, education needs to deliver outcomes for people and for many, that means a pathway to employment. It is incumbent on educators to recognise that prospective students are assessing their options against this backdrop of the changing nature of work and adapt accordingly.
Government, Industry and Job-Ready Graduates.
All sides of politics are sensitive to the idea that education safeguards future growth and a population with the right skills can complement the progress of technology and innovation and allay fears of jobs lost to robots and automation. For industries likely to suffer this fate, education through reskilling can offer a pathway into alternative employment, but planning needs to start now. The structures need to be in place to ease this transition. And as research matures around identifying the roles most vulnerable to this change, we need to review whether education should continue to offer these qualifications at all.
There is a responsibility on industry to work with educators to help guide the development of curriculum to ensure that the supply of graduates is aligned with the demand for jobs – even more important in regional or remote areas. Educators that build a deep connection with industry will be in a position to forward engineer their programs and develop courses that not only meet job requirements, but increase overall productivity. Moving the dial a fraction in overall productivity will provide huge returns to employers and subsequently, the output of the nation as a whole
In terms of legislation, government support is crucial and needs to mirror the type of flexibility demanded of providers and their students to design and deliver fit-for-purpose funding and regulation. Right now, arcane regulation is serving to stifle innovation and seems to entirely ignore the growing influence of technology in the space. And the current funding models, predicated on loans tied to future income, provide a strong argument for employment outcomes to be a more meaningful measure of success from education, something which remains in a state of infancy. Even tying funding for training directly to employers may prove a smart alternative, as seen in the UK with the ‘Apprenticeship Levy’ concept, which serves to counter some of the diminishing public spend across education, often caused by increased investment in healthcare to support ageing populations.
Public policy also needs to recognise and reward efforts outside of academic progression with providers now offering more sophisticated support to students, ranging from things like career advice, mentoring and coaching to accommodation and financial assistance. This investment often goes unnoticed, but contributes in a significant way to the quality of graduates a provider is producing. This level of student support will be crucial in the future to providers with strong internship programs that will need to protect their relationships with industry in the light of increased competition.
We know that employers are chasing ‘job-ready’ graduates and more education providers are looking at addressing this as an intrinsic part of study. Work placement, internship and workplace-based learning can help leverage value by providing experience of work, but this only goes so far. With the proliferation of these programs across education, the challenge for students now is finding a way to differentiate themselves from their peers in a competitive labour market. This brings ‘soft-skills’ increasingly into the equation as ‘employability assets’ and smart operators will start to embed this concept into the student experience.
There is no doubt that education will shape the workforce of the future, but the concern is the rate at which we innovate and adapt to ensure we produce the best possible graduates. In an industry the size of education with the revenue it generates, there is a risk that all stakeholders are content to maintain some version of the current situation in order to protect their own interests. This is where strong leadership is required to make the difficult decisions now so that we don’t fail students to come in the future. It is, by any measure, incredibly challenging, but those providers ready to transform their business will carry the most attraction and benefit from that critical first mover advantage and be in a position to stave off the looming threat of the disruptors.