Photo by Nqobile Vundla on Unsplash
There is far-reaching consensus that the future of higher education is anything but certain, graduate unemployment and underemployment are on the rise even more so on the African continent. Employers are becoming increasingly vocal about the mismatch between the skills that job seekers possess and what they require for entry-level positions. Yet, the cost of acquiring higher education has risen astronomically on the back of these challenges, rendering it increasingly inaccessible and consequentially calling into question its value as an investment. The rise of alternative pathways to access entry-level jobs in skills-based careers provided by boot camps, massive open online courses (MOOCs), and open source resources also exacerbate the challenge facing Higher Education Institutions (HEIs).
As a participant in CONNECTed’s EdTech and Strategy for Higher Education course, which brings together a global network of Edtech and higher education professionals, we were asked to describe what we perceived higher education may look like in the year 2050 given its current challenges. Based on that exchange, this article attempts to craft a value-based argument for initiatives that African HEIs in particular may need to pursue in order to still be relevant by 2050 and beyond.
As knowledge previously reserved for the hallowed walls of HEIs becomes more and more ubiquitous—as a function of rapidly increasing internet penetration on the African continent, many HEIs will likely find it significantly more difficult to persuade prospective students that paying tuition to access similar information is a good investment and, even more so, that they are the most deserving institution of that investment among a plethora of alternatives.
This situation presents an opportunity for institutions to leverage a key component of any foundational strategy – the mission.
As a starting point, African HEIs must revisit both their mission statements and pedagogical philosophies. A compelling mission statement, one that speaks to a unique value proposition such as leadership development or global relevance will be important as it becomes increasingly likely that HEIs will no longer be chosen exclusively for knowledge acquisition purposes. A great example of a highly differentiated mission statement that speaks to a clear value proposition is that of the African Leadership University (ALU). 1 2
While I was a fresh entrant at a university in Nigeria, (or “Jambite” 3). One of my foremost lessons was that the subject matter experts responsible for facilitating learning were to be addressed as “lecturers”, not “teachers”.
Their name appropriately fit their role in the classroom. Actual learning was not considered an objective but an occasional by-product of our classroom engagements.
The situation is similar in many HEIs across the African continent as subject matter experts are not required to undergo any form of specialized training in preparation for facilitating learning in the classroom.
In a content-ubiquitous world, one where knowledge is increasingly commoditized, the quality of learning facilitation or teaching is likely to gain prominence as one of the major considerations for prospective students of HEIs. If true, this will even be more so for complex subject matters or disciplines for which self-directed learning may be challenging or inadequate. Hence, the most attractive institutions will be those that prioritize learning and invest in initiatives aimed at capability building for their teaching staff. Another hallmark of such an institution will be a dedicated learning team consisting of, not just subject matter experts, but learning experience designers, digital technologists, and multimedia designers who work together to craft delightful and potent learning experiences based on the principles of neuroscience and andragogy.
In a landscape where change is often preceded by regulation, it is heartwarming that the Ghanaian government has taken the first step by proposing that all “lecturers” at higher education institutions in Ghana obtain postgraduate teaching training as a prerequisite for teaching at its HEIs. At an institutional level, the African leadership University also sets an example in providing specialized support for the training of their learning facilitators soon after they are hired. The OECD provides a valuable guide that details policies and practices that can assist HEIs to improve their capability in this regard.
A known, but often glossed over, issue is that most students lack agency with regard to several aspects of their learning experience at African HEIs. Many of the “freedoms” that are associated with the higher education experience elsewhere do not exist widely on the African continent. These include but are not limited to:
This lack of choice may be attributed to limited resources in some cases; however, that excuse feeds into a larger pattern of HEIs not being student-centered and may not hold water for much longer in the face of rising competition from EdTech companies whose business models are centered around adapting to the needs of the student.
In order to create lasting value, the level of customer obsession that some of the world’s top tech organizations have is probably worth emulating by HEIs. In line with that, a specific area of focus for African HEIs especially could be student support due to its implications for student outcomes. African HEIs might consider making sure that support services are readily available and support extends beyond academic matters to areas such as wellness in order to ensure that students receive the holistic care necessary to successfully navigate Tertiary Education.
A model African HEI in this regard is the United States International University – Africa (USIU-A), which guarantees most of the freedoms associated with a typical American HEI along with robust support services for the entire university community.
HEIs might not want to be seen as transactional but their approach to retaining students post-graduation tells a different story. The mutually beneficial relationship that exists between many HEIs and students spans the duration of the student’s enrollment at the institution. After which, they typically struggle to sustain engagement and generate any value from the alumni network which may now have a global footprint.
African HEIs especially must consider pursuing initiatives aimed at fostering robust life-long learning relationships with students, in order to alleviate sole dependency on new student enrollment for sustenance. To achieve that, they must look into developing robust product offerings that allow their alumni to keep learning while engaged in full-time careers away from the university’s immediate environment. This may also involve the introduction of incentives built upon current alumni engagement programs such as discounted access to short-form courses, post-graduate degrees, and executive education programs.
In taking a longer-term approach to the HEI/student relationship, African HEIs do well to explore deferred financing options. Financing options such as Income Share Agreements or (ISAs) enable disadvantaged students to access the high-quality education needed to unlock future opportunities that will provide a platform for the return of value to the HEIs over the course of their careers as dictated by agreed-upon terms. Subscription-based financing modeled after typical income cycles may also increase the accessibility of African HEIs and enable them to capture a segment of the market that depends on smaller regular inflows for sustenance.
In the groundbreaking work Marketing Myopia, Theodore Levitt argued that sustained growth depends on how broadly an organization defines its business – and how carefully it gauges the needs of its customers. In order to sustain their relevance, HEIs must adapt to the needs of all learners. In positioning themselves to take advantage of the opportunities that will exist as the needs of learners change, HEIs should consider re-inventing themselves in two major ways:
These should enable them (HEIs) to extend their impact to a broader population i.e. beyond the typical “enrolled degree-seeking student”. Some promising opportunities that will become more prominent as the higher education landscape evolves are in learning curation, skill certification, and provisioning of learning communities.
Increased access to knowledge driven by deeper internet penetration and a growing open source movement will most likely lead to more prospective students opting to pursue self-study as a low-cost alternative to formal enrollment in HEIs. However, given the variable utility of available learning resources, it will be important for learners to be able to rapidly and conveniently identify the most beneficial learning resources and eliminate noise. This presents an opportunity for subject matter experts at HEIs to leverage on their experience and expertise to curate learning resources and create personalized learning plans that will enable self-directed learners to achieve their goals in an efficient manner.
The anticipated rise in self-directed learning is also bound to drive up the need for skills certification by trusted entities. This presents another value creation opportunity along with its revenue generation potential for HEIs. Given their vast experience in conducting assessments, HEIs are well positioned to carry out this function effectively. HEIs could function in a similar manner to internet certification authorities by engendering trust between students and potential employers, both of whom will need to rely on the HEI’s expertise and reputation for skills assessment and validation of qualifications.
Given the well-documented merits of social interactions as a component of learning, it is expected that self-directed learners will seek out opportunities to connect with peers who are on similar learning journeys. This presents yet another potential opportunity for HEIs to add value, HEIs are uniquely positioned to satisfy the need for in-person or virtual social interaction amongst self-directed learners through their vast network of students and expansive physical infrastructure in the form of campuses.
It is perhaps instructive to note that a fundamental precursor to realizing most of the goals of this proposed agenda is a more progressive regulatory environment, given that the higher education space on the African continent is currently subject to several inhibitive requirements, many of which are losing justification in a rapidly evolving world. However, there is no doubt that the increasing number of challenges facing the sector will eventually compel major stakeholders to review provisions and re-strategize in order to confront some of the sector’s nascent challenges.
While the role of the quintessential profit motive in education continues to divide opinion, there is little doubt that HEIs all over the world, especially those on the African continent, can benefit a great deal from adopting a value-based approach – one that calls for constant innovation based on changing stakeholder perception of value. A series of steps that undoubtedly represent a critical undertaking for a sector that prides itself in its history and tradition, but may well be the difference between thriving and surviving in a rapidly evolving landscape that flounders to foreshadow a future that may very well already be here.
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