Sir Richard Branson recently spoke out on his blog about unaffordable, inaccessible university educations. I appreciate that Branson is a thought leader who likes to challenge the status quo of staid industries and I agree that university educations are unaffordable and inaccessible. While there is no question that we need a new model of university education, his solution to reduce the length of university educations isn’t workable.
When I worked at General Mills we used to have a saying. “Good, Fast, Cheap. Pick any two!” With Branson’s suggestion we’ll end up with fast and cheap education, that isn’t any good.
Branson wants university educations to be shorter, so students can get to work more quickly. Unfortunately, our brains don’t work that way. Learning takes time and repetition. If a student is doing all of their assigned readings, studying and completion of assignments, they should be working on school a full forty hours a week. We know that frequency improves retention, as well as opportunity for application of knowledge.
He argues that universities are run on the schedules of professors (tell that to the registrar’s office…). Blaming professors will only polarize the debate. Unless the public understands what we do (we do not get “the whole summer off”), it’s difficult for them to understand the challenges of changing the model.
One of the reasons the cost of higher education is increasing so dramatically is related to the demands of students – they want more educational counseling, more career counseling, more emotional counseling, better services, better technology, fancier residence buildings. On top of that, governments are mandating accessibility and other services that are very expensive. These costs are fixed whether students go to school for two years or four, so the fixed cost just gets spread over two years instead of four.
We do need a new model for the delivery of education, but it can’t be at the cost of quality and needs to be based on evidence. Our model of education can’t put students in lifelong debt, nor should it graduate students who do not have the skills needed to survive in our knowledge based world.
So Sir Richard, I applaud you for pointing out that we have an unsustainable model of education, but I ask that you actually learn something about higher education before you make any recommendations. Good leaders use evidence and knowledge of the industry not opinion based on cursory observation.