Higher education must change or perish

Failing to adapt to a changing retail market has littered the path to takeover or bankruptcy for one-time dominant retail brands such as Sears and Eaton's.

Business analysts caution that Sears failed to adapt to a changing marketplace and subsequently lost customers and market share to Wal-Mart, Canadian Tire, Best Buy, Costco, Winners and, more recently and significantly, Amazon.

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According to retail consultant Doug Stephens, author of The Retail Revival: Re-Imagining Business for the New Age of Consumerism, accepting the reality of a post-digital world is critical to retail survival.

"For a long time, Canadian retailers just sort of shrugged their shoulders about e-commerce. They didn't think it was that big of a deal. Now all of the sudden, along comes Amazon and the tables have turned," Stephens said. "I think they've recognized that e-commerce is the future and that someone else is capitalizing on that future, and it's not them."

The Hudson's Bay Company recently spent $60 million on an automated logistics system to rival Amazon's best-in-class facilities.

So what does all this have to do with public education - universities and colleges in particular?

The answer is complicated but well-documented: the market for post-secondary education is evolving as rapidly as anything in the retail world has within the past few years and is just as threatened by a changing environment.

Post-secondary students are no longer just "students." They are now customers, consumers who are able to choose from a variety of "buying experiences."

Like shoppers, who have become accustomed to switching between online and in-store options, students, no longer restricted by the monopoly on qualifications once controlled by traditional post-secondary institutions, want it all and want it now.

Among other things, that means that universities and colleges, in order to survive and stay in business over the next 10 to 20 years, have some innovative business planning to do.

To some academic ears, the notion that a university or college is a business is heresy, flying in the face of the nobility of acquiring knowledge.

But some academics, such as Paul Geatrix, British university administrator and journalist, do not agree and he writes in The Guardian that: "higher education is a slightly unusual kind of business and differs from other businesses in a number of ways," not the least of which, as Greatrix explains, is that "the purchaser has little knowledge of the product and generally is unable to test it before deciding to buy."

Where recruitment was always a major administrative initiative, it is retention beyond first year that has become an important key to business success for post-secondary institutions.

About 14 per cent of first-year post-secondary students drop out, according to the Persistence in Post-Secondary Education in Canada report, which analyzed data from Statistics Canada's Youth in Transition Survey.

The overall post-secondary dropout rate was about 16 per cent, suggesting that those who are going to drop out do so early on.

The time is past when students will enrol, pay significant fees, assume substantial debt to support travel and accommodation somewhere near a campus for a qualification leading to - what?

At the heart of this is an emerging awareness of the importance of what is now referred to as the management of "student experience."

That means, as it does in the retail business, ensuring that the product and services being offered meet customer needs and expectations.

Camosun College, for example, incorporates the concept of "applied learning" in many of its programs.

This refers to learning experiences that get learners thinking, collaborating, communicating and ultimately engaging with and contributing to the world around them.

These learning experiences take place in a range of contexts, including in the classroom, the workplace and the community.

The idea is to enable learners to apply and integrate theoretical knowledge, as well as personal, practical and professional skills. Ideally, the learning activities simulate real-world situations or are situated in a real-world context.

Universities including the University of Victoria now offer expanded opportunities for co-op programs in a variety of fields ranging from biochemistry and microbiology to law and public administration.

At Royal Roads University, online learning is a component of the learning model. This model combines team-based online courses with short on-campus residencies.

Online and on-campus learning are focused on real-world relevance, which also allows working professionals to maintain their lives while advancing their careers.

Charles Darwin probably did not have post-secondary organizational survival in mind when he wrote: "it is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive, but those who can best manage change." However, he might have been describing to future of universities and colleges that have accepted the advice of Alan Deutschman, business writer for Fortune magazine and professor of journalism at the University of Nevada: "change or die."

-- Geoff Johnson, Glacier Media

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