We Urgently Need More Edupreneurs

30/01/2017 14:14

Higher education tends to be remarkably conservative. This is understandable as it takes decades, even centuries, to build up a reputation which can be lost in a matter of days or weeks through one mistake. At the same time, the sector can benefit from a bit more disruption as the result of innovative edupreneurs because the world changes rapidly and education needs to be at the forefront of that, rather than a very reluctant follower.

Good edupreneurs use their creative talents to spot opportunities and are willing to experiment with fresh thinking. It is an environment that is dominated by vested interests that can be perceived as rather irritating even threatening, yet it is the life blood of urgently needed change.

Higher education is also relatively expensive, for tax payers and for students. Therefore, entrepreneurial methods of offering value for money, generating additional income and making sure an institution is less dependent on public funding - in other words, becoming more independent - is, in essence, laudable. In that sense, making a strong separation between public and private education is wrong.

In many ways, the difference lies between light dark grey and dark light grey. Public universities need edupreneurs (as intrapreneurs) as they are essential for private universities. Even the ancient, traditional colleges in Oxford or Cambridge would not have survived without them. In fact, Oxbridge colleges tend to be remarkably entrepreneurial, with considerable diversification of revenue through commercial interests in farming, car parking, real estate, stock market, etc. Such a level of diversification is unknown, even in the private education sector.

There is a good argument for more risk-adverse universities to follow their example, rather than assume that only public funding is clean and that revenue from private activities is, by definition, dirty. Whether in ignorance or purposely for the sake of vested interests, black and white thinking merely reinforces prejudice.

The reason why public and private education are actually closer to each other than some would like to admit, and why edupreneurs are so essential to both, is rooted in the shared DNA.

To keep a complicated story simple, there are three main strands in DNA of higher education.

Firstly of course, there are the academic values. One could say this is essentially about knowledge for the sake of knowledge. The ideal form of funding for this is patronage, e.g. from the Monarch, the State or any form of donation, as long as these come without strings attached.

Secondly, especially in the last hundred years or so, we can clearly see a strongly emerging stand: the utilitarian brief of having to serve society. Of course there is a coincidence with emerging nationalism. Funding for this is typically public and hence comes with accountability, sometimes relaxed but for the most part quite strict.

The third strand is about the university being an enterprise, which means having to be very client focused and market driven, because in the entrepreneurial context revenue comes from primarily fees and service contracts.

All our universities - whether private or public - share the same DNA, mixing those three stands, though obviously with different blends. The resulting profile is different for each institution and for that reason we can stress (or exaggerate) those differences, claiming that one is much better than the other. But actually, by and large, we have more in common than what separates us. Even more importantly, what makes institutions distinctive is of crucial importance to ensure healthy diversity and dynamics in the sector as a whole.

Though I work in the private sector, I am also a vocal advocate of public funding with limited strings attached for areas of teaching and research that are unlikely to be served by market forces. At the same time, I know from personal experience that in areas which could easily be served well through more market focused provision, public funding can cause complacency with the result that they do not always serve their key stakeholders well: students, taxpayers and employers. Edupreneurs do not kill what is valuable; they can facilitate sensible cross-subsidisation or free up (public) funds to be spent more wisely in strengthening teaching and research in commercially less attractive areas. In the end we all can benefit from that.

Of course, I fully recognise that there are undeniably some dubious private sector operations and equally that there are some seriously inefficient public universities. In the past, people would sneer about the University of Luton or Thames Valley University and more recently on the other side of mud-slinging Lord Patten (Chancellor, Oxford University) asked rhetorically if the current government wants to invoke more of the spirit of Philip Green in higher education. Neither is helpful. Education has a strict compliance and regulatory framework, probably more than any sector in society. And rightly so, because excesses need to be acted upon, not for political reason, but purely to protect the interests of the students and the interests of the tax payers, in other words the interests of the various stakeholders.

But risk avoidance, the immediate enemy of edupreneurship, is ultimately a bigger risk to the sector than a compliance system that fails to regulate every minute detail of operations.

Without a prominent place for edupreneurship, quite simply the sector as a whole, and even more so specific institutions, will be moribund.

We urgently need more edupreneurs indeed.

Professor Maurits van Rooijen is Rector and Chief Executive at London School of Business and Finance (LSBF) and Chief Academic Officer of Global University Systems (GUS).