Universities need new and ‘disruptive’ models of education

New and ‘disruptive’ models of education are needed if universities around the world are to shed their traditionally slow and imitative approach to change and to respond adequately to the new realities of global higher education.

This argument was made at the second QS-MAPLE conference, in Durban this month, by Martin Reynolds and Sonal Minocha in a joint presentation based on their experience of introducing an innovative practice-based model of business school education at Anglia Ruskin University (Chelmsford) in the UK.

Reynolds, now head of the Centre for Leadership and Management Practice at Birmingham City University, and Minocha, now the University of Bedfordshire’s business school dean, argued that universities in the Middle East and Africa should become leading institutions in their own right by challenging traditional models of higher education and by responding directly to the new realities of higher education.

Among these new realities are an overwhelming demand from the world’s growing middle classes – particularly in Africa and the developing world – for access to tertiary studies; greater demand from students for an educational experience that blends academic rigour with practical relevance; and a global context of greater insecurity around the funding and sustainability of the higher education sector.

In their presentation, titled “New Realities of Global Higher Education: What is the direction of university models for the future?”, Reynolds outlined the features of Anglia Ruskin’s ‘disruptive innovation’ programme: a 0+3 business degree programme, designed in conjunction with high-profile companies such as Harrods, Barclays and Volvo, which placed carefully selected students directly in the workplace, gave them ‘practice intelligence’, three years of work experience, and an academic qualification, and – importantly – left them debt-free.

In response to a question from a conference delegate, Reynolds said the programme attracted high-calibre students “who wanted that kind of experience”, were attracted by the lack of debt attached to the programme, and were relatively less concerned about the ranking of the institution.

But the selection procedure was also tough. Said Minocha: “The companies were recruiting their future employees, so they needed to be rigorous.” The cost of the programme – borne by the participating companies – was also several times higher than the cost of an ordinary university degree.

Minocha said students in the practice-based programme saw themselves at the outset as employees rather than students. “That was a major mindset shift,” she said. According to Reynolds, 98% of the learning happened in the workplace. So another major mindset shift had to come from staff and faculty.

Reynolds listed as one of the challenges facing the programme’s implementation the process of validating the 0+3 programme in a traditional university context.

Securing support from academics who traditionally viewed theory as the starting point in any degree programme was another challenge, said Minocha. “We were now flipping the traditional model and asking colleagues to start from the basis of context and thereafter provide intellectual input and theoretical rigour.”

Reynolds said that among the programme’s major innovations was its challenge to traditional educational funding models. In this case, the companies themselves effectively paid the students’ fees and also paid their students a salary during their placement. The programme also attracted a significant endowment for the institution, said Reynolds.

The presence of a value proposition – the fact that someone wants to pay for it – he said, was one of three criteria for testing a successful disruptive innovation. “Most if not all organisations face the challenge of integrating improvement with innovation.

“It’s easy to imitate and stay on an existing track but difficult to fund and resource change. The value proposition aspect in some ways carries the innovation because the traditional model doesn’t provide it,” he said.

The other criteria to measure successful innovation, he said, included relevance or connection with global reality – evidenced in this case by the programme’s contribution to an understanding of the practice of management – and the delivery of differentiation in the marketplace.

On the latter issue, Reynolds said competitors such as private higher education providers BPP and Kaplan were already offering practice-based educational programmes.

However, Anglia Ruskin’s disruption offered a unique innovation because it was an attempt to move into the practice-based arena as a traditional university, thus creating an opportunity – particularly through the university’s Institute for International Management Practice – for innovative research and curriculum development.