Our Institutions Must Collaborate

Benjamin Disraeli once said, ‘A University should be a place of light, of liberty, and of learning’ In today’s times he would have added, ‘to collaborate’ as well.

Most of us who lived in the hostels would remember, that we achieved several things, seemingly difficult, if not impossible, because we collaborated with each other almost on everything, be it everyday chores or learning. It was fun learning, when three or four of us living in a room would each learn a lesson and then discuss with others. By the end of the day, were each one of us not better off on all the lessons? This was collaborative learning at its best. No tuitions and no coaching classes. Didn’t our professional collaboration teach more about ourselves? Whether it is micro learning of LinkedIn or those wonderful lessons of Coursera, they all instil the same passion in learning today. The flip side however, is they cost money. 

In today’s competitive economy, nothing is more important than getting a good college education. Yet, college tuition costs have been increasing steeply, making college unaffordable for millions. Even those, who manage to get a good college degree, feel cheated, not finding a good job.    

The cost of education increased more than 200% in institutions in the government sector and by almost 150% in the private sector in the last decade. Post Covid 19, these institutions are pushed hard to invest more in IT infrastructure, which could fuel a fee hike in the coming months. A large dropout rate in our colleges is mainly due to cost of education. Will the dropout rate rise and add to the drop in enrolments? Are the colleges worth the fees they charge? Parents would still invest in education and college degrees of their children. In the absence of some form of earning on campus, how would the students cope in future or pay the tuition fees? An education loan comes with several strings attached though the narratives could be different. Still, college education is only half the problem, the other is a meaningful employment. 

Higher education funding by the Centre has been going down over the past decade or so pushing the institutional fee upwards to make good the difference. A lacklustre State funding only stresses the system more. Even cost of living has gone up affecting the tuition fee economics. How then are we to fund college education in future? For one, the costs need to come down or people’s income go up. People’s income being what it is, innovative collaborations between institutions, universities and industry is probably the only way out.  

The “base of the university pyramid is being disrupted like never before.  Impart of education has had to adopt various initiatives and resort to alternative financing mechanisms. Some succeeded and some failed. But then we have 45000 colleges and 900 universities. Can they afford the IT infrastructure? Leveraging the collaborative ecosystem is the only answer.   

Connectivity at all levels, digitalisation, the internet of things (IOT) and Big Data are enabling connectivity at an unprecedented level, between things, people and organisations, across traditional boundaries of institutions, universities, companies, industry and geography. Blockchain provides an unhackable virtual record that promotes transparency on transactions.  

Leveraging a collaborative ecosystem for either bringing down costs or for better employment has never been as important as it is now. With the industry reinventing with AI and massive automation and leading the 4.0 wave, it is only natural that it should seek labour 4.0. University education must multi task and facilitate it. An ecosystem based on a network of institutions and their competitiveness, must be global and diversified.

Like the sports apparel companies are now delivering health outcomes, and carmakers delivering mobility, institutions too must wake up to develop a strong ecosystem of partners across their customer value chain of students, faculty, industries, society, community and deliver multiple learning paradigms. 

Traditional Value Chains create value “based on the production of goods and services. Similarly, future universities must create ‘Value Webs’, connected on the social media to create value, based on knowledge exchange that drives education and learning paradigms through various collaborative processes. 

Online education and more correctly, blended learning can lead the GER resurgence, but needs investments in IT infrastructure. Not all the 900 odd universities and 45000 colleges can afford the investments. Either the cost to student would go up or there would be no investments. Instead of going solo, can the institutions come together to create a collaborative learning management platform, subscribe to third party content and invest in IT infrastructure to bring down the costs? They will need to share faculty, resources and sundry. The choice is either collective swimming or individual drowning. 

By pooling resources, a symbiosis of institutions and universities will happen to improve learning outcomes and promote competency-based skills. Look at the example of Toyota and Suzuki’s latest technology tie-up that draws on each other’s expertise in developing next generation vehicles. If the Industries can do it, universities too must. A key ingredient of any strong relationship is empathy.

Today Students demand courses, programs that might be beyond the capability and capacity of one institution in terms of providing resources and investments. Traditional university working is not a sustainable model anymore. In a classic case of collaboration, Tata Motors, developed ‘Nano’ as the world’s cheapest car, which resulted in partners across its supplier network, producing low-cost component parts, which enabled its production. University administrations must look beyond individual egos to drive home this point. Nano may have been a market failure, but the price reduction impacts were extraordinary. 

Universities are frozen in time and refuse to innovate. For example, how many of them, while designing a curriculum for the Electric vehicles (EV), would involve, beyond automobile companies, the city planners, energy players, public transportation providers, regulators, infrastructure companies, insurance firms and peer-to-peer networks? A lot of wisdom is outside the university system. Can the universities crowdsource and harness that wisdom? That will make them openly innovative. Can there be an Ideas Portal that allows anyone to submit new ideas that can be used by the partnering institutions? Over the past few decades, almost 12,000 companies were started at universities with a very high success rate. In the process, the collaborating industries benefit through an access to a network of faculty, key opinion leaders, and lead scientists. Collaborating with universities may even allow them to ‘de-risk’ their research and provide research cost avoidance, saving them money even as they give money to universities. 

If the benefits can be plotted as a pie chart, one big slice would be industry feedback and guidance. Many universities realise that not all problems can be solved in isolation in a lab, and that they need industry feedback in taking an invention or product from conception to market. By striking up corporate partnerships, universities have more resources to undertake research, and they can even diversify their research areas. Another part of the pie chart is students getting meaningful jobs, with the partnering companies of the universities. Companies who don’t have the time themselves to incubate ideas look for graduates who have the pulse on emerging markets. This pipeline from research student to employee is a powerful PR for universities. What more do our institutions and universities want? Benjamin Disraeli once said, ‘A University should be a place of light, of liberty, and of learning’ In today’s times he would have added, ‘to collaborate’ as well.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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