How can universities distinguish themselves in today’s marketplace? And how can they appeal to finance-conscious students, whilst ensuring they offer a comprehensive and high-quality education experience?
Increasingly, universities are looking to collaborative, co-operative and innovative approaches. But can universities learn a thing or two from unusual models created by young companies and start-ups? Recently, mobile virtual network operator Giffgaff found itself the third top trending subject online, after climate change and the global economy. The company, set up in 2009, has created a real buzz for its innovative service. But could a university be run along the lines that Giffgaff has explored?
Giffgaff uses a community model in its approach to customer service. There are no customer service phone lines. Instead, the firm uses online message boards and problems are solved by other users. As payment, these informal IT support teams are rewarded ‘payback points’, which they can exchange for cash using PayPal. If there are specific issues that can’t be dealt with, or which involve confidential account information, they’re handled by ‘agents’ – Giffgaff employees.
The result for the company is huge cost savings in terms of call centres – not just salaries, but also real estate, heating and lighting, phone calls, etc. Comparably, BT has some 20 call centres in the UK alone, with a similar number in India. That’s a huge number of employees.
It works for a digital start-up. But could it work for a university? What if lecturers only lectured; administrative duties were stripped to a minimum and instead, online communities helped with the student support that has traditionally been the role of the teaching staff? It makes sense on the one hand, because lecturers are well-paid and there is the argument that they should not be spending time on areas that are not their specialism. On the other hand, the student journey is a sensitive one and needs to be handled carefully; is it fair to say that a key part of student support is to get one-to-one time from their tutor?
The result could be a pared-down approach to fees – a no-frills model, where minimal support and a reduced student experience is accepted as the price of significantly reduced fees. But could this work, and would it be popular?
Making the connections
In practice, a collaborative university is likely to look somewhat different.
Ryan Craig, author of College Disrupted, outlines what ‘Career Services 2.0’ might look like. It’s likely to be data-focused on the one hand, and connectivity- focused on the other. ‘Career Services 2.0 can advocate for university-wide ePortfolios or skills passports or digital badging, Craig says, ‘providing additional competency data that employers can utilize not only to determine which graduating seniors might be good candidates, but which sophomores and juniors might be good candidates for virtual internships or other engagement.’
Secondly, Career Services 2.0 would ‘engage schools and departments to galvanize a culture of employment focus and connectivity, for example through the aforementioned online departmental career networks, or – more promising – by facilitating the establishment of structured pathways to employment.’
It’s in this second area, connectivity focus, that our comparison with Giffgaff might come into its own. The key is for university providers to think differently about how to connect students with the workplace. The existing model – give students an education, then expect them to somehow find the right career straightaway when they leave – is no longer fit for purpose. Indeed, we could argue that it’s never been fit for purpose; it has just always been the default, with neither university nor business seeing it, until now, as ‘their job’.
These things can be changed, so why is it not happening?
‘When we think about how dramatically the world of work has changed, it is remarkable that the methods utilized to prepare students to enter it have remained static,’ says Andy Chan in Roadmap for Transforming the College-To-Career Experience.
There are lots of highly-skilled graduates out there, but they might not be aware of the companies that are looking for them. How many job applications can a graduate reasonably fill in on leaving university? We all know how long such forms can take to fill in; and to maximise the chances of getting the job, they need to be tailored to the company the applicant is trying to get noticed by. Often, job applicants have to fill in templates supplied by the employer which mean you can’t cut and paste – you have to manually enter information into different boxes.
All this is extremely time-consuming. It’s inefficient and frustrating for the applicant, and it means companies are missing out on potential as a result. There’s hard evidence that this problem is real. Nicholas Wyman, CEO of the Institute of Workplace Skills and Innovation wrote last year that ‘as 2015 begins, 9 million Americans are unemployed. Youth unemployment hovers at 15%.’ But at the same time, ‘4.8 million jobs are unfilled because employers lack the skilled workers they need. This gap between jobs and the skilled talent needed to fill them isn’t going away any time soon. 63% of CEOs globally are worried that a lack of skilled workers will continue to threaten the growth of their businesses.’ Clearly, something needs to change.
For Wyman, ‘people without jobs and jobs without people’ is a problem that ‘won’t be solved by one sector alone.’ Short-term fixes won’t work, he argues, and the way forward has to be ‘the creation of innovative partnerships between educators, policy makers, and industry leaders.’ Fortunately, ‘there is growing momentum’ for this. ‘The future of workforce development in the US hinges on collaboration between the companies that will hire the next generation of workers, and those charged with educating them.’ Wyman points out that while companies need skilled workers, educators need more understanding of what skills are required by business, both general and specific. ‘The good news is, collaboration between policy makers, educators, and industry is growing.’
Wyman outlines four key qualities that innovative collaborations and partnerships demonstrate to ‘change the game for students and job seekers at any stage of life, creating clear pathways to a promising career and a stable economic future.’ These qualities also ‘bolster local economies and strengthen local communities’:
- Have a shared vision. ‘Partners need to share the same goal and commitment to solving a shared problem.’ It’s in collaborators’ interests to ensure that graduates are equipped for work in today’s fast-moving environment. But to achieve this, ‘partners need to really listen to one another, and determine what each brings to the table. What unique resources can they each contribute to further that shared vision and how, specifically, will they do so?’
- Be flexible. ‘Not only do successful partners share a common goal, they also know how to meet each other halfway,’ Wyman argues. ‘Educators need to be willing to adapt curriculum and training programs to meet the changing realities of the world of work.’ Additionally, ‘business leaders have to learn to be flexible and adaptive in their approaches to training and mentorship.’
- Start before university. ‘Offering students the opportunity to get a taste of vocational and real-world skills early in their educational journey only results in a more engaged, and motivated workforce.’ Wyman quotes the example of a school in South Carolina where high school students can study robotics, machine technology and industrial electronics with industry professionals coming into the school to help them. Not only that, but as a result, ‘international talent recruiters who want to invest in promising students’ post-secondary education’ are also present at the school. This aligning of study with ultimate career is invaluable and as the example shows, cannot start too early.
- Stay up to date. ‘A hallmark of successful skills training models throughout the world is ongoing efforts between educators, employers, and industry groups to stay on top of the newest technologies and trends.’ The South Carolina region referred to above has a Business-Education Alliance, where ‘local business leaders and managers meet regularly with the district’s teachers, guidance counselors, and school superintendents to collaborate and share information.’
Taking the initiative
Graduates are taking the situation into their own hands too, by using social networking sites like LinkedIn to provide a ready-made shop window for their skills and experience. Learning how to get this right can be invaluable; if you have a strong profile, are well-connected and have recommendations, you will get alerts to specific job adverts that you might be well-suited for. You might even get headhunted. The algorithms involved here are used in ways that are still relatively crude; but the canny student can take by advantage of it by thinking strategically and using LinkedIn’s community model to narrow their focus on jobs that they standing a good chance of getting.
Collaborative models are only going to increase as the gap between unemployed people looking for work and businesses looking for workers continues to be a problem. Technology can help crunch this; and the sophisticated student will find their own new ways to get jobs. But schools, universities, governments and businesses could all find that by working together more, the benefits add up for national economies, the university sector and businesses as a whole.