The Value and Limitations of Service Partnerships in Higher Education
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The Value and Limitations of Service Partnerships in Higher Education

One of the biggest challenges standing in the way of partnerships between service providers and higher education institutions is the unfamiliarity institutional leaders have in partnering outside academe.


The following email Q&A is with Kathleen Burke, associate dean of advanced academic programs in Johns Hopkins University’s Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. In this Q&A, Burke explores the types of services that institutions are comfortable outsourcing, shares her thoughts on the differentiated value of service partnerships in the corporate and postsecondary worlds, and discusses some of the challenges leaders encounter in the introductory phases of a partnership.

1. What are the most significant benefits an institution can gain from entering into an administrative or academic partnership with an institutional partner?

First we have to define what we mean by “partnering” and by “institutional partner.” The tradition within higher education of “partnering” with peer institutions is rich, productive and long lived. Faculty worldwide have a long history of collaborating with peers for research and teaching. There are good reasons why prizes such as the Nobel Prize are often awarded to groups of people at multiple institutions. Our culture is, by nature, collaborative, which means partnering is, to some extent, in our DNA.

The real distinction to be made is between partnerships that are of this kind — between or among higher education institutions — and partnerships that have emerged over the last few decades with what might be called “for-profit” and sometimes “non-profit” providers of services.

The main benefit of partnering within this second type of partnership, for most institutions, is the ability it provides to remain focused on the core mission of education and research. Higher education institutions exist to create and disseminate knowledge. Their organization, funding mechanisms, infrastructures: all of these must coalesce for this primary purpose. It is why we exist. The challenge is that colleges and universities are also large and complex businesses, which means they frequently need help to provide the variety of services they provide for their constituencies. Up until a few decades ago, partnering or outsourcing in higher education was fairly predictable: food service, grounds maintenance, student transportation, security and similar services predominated. More recently, the provision of services has expanded, with the provision of services to enable online learning perhaps being the most controversial and most current form of outsourcing.

2. Are there any particular academic or administrative services that institutions are particularly cautious about outsourcing?

Most institutions would be well advised to safeguard teaching and research, as they are the major pillars of institutional mission. Most institutions I know do not outsource these activities, although they may partner with peer higher education institutions in engaging in these activities and, occasionally, with for-profit and non-profit sectors.

The debate now on many campuses has to do with the services surrounding online learning. Should you retain the capacity to design your online courses and host them internally or should you partner? Should you try to market and recruit students on your own or rely on outside expertise? These are particularly thorny questions for higher education because they come with great expense, but in the minds of many, we should be able to do at least some of these things ourselves. After all, the field of “instructional design” originated in colleges and universities and is considered today to be an academic discipline. The Internet itself is a by-product of academic and military research, and many of today’s learning management systems started out on college campuses.

While many of us know we can provide services in these areas, the question is, should we? And that leads to considerations of cost, available capital, scale and tolerance for risk — areas where higher education has traditionally struggled.

3. What are the biggest differences between an administrative service partnership in a higher education institution as compared with other businesses or industries?

What are called “B2B relationships” are easier because you “speak the same language” and operate on similar models. Higher education is different. If you are a business seeking to partner with higher education, it is essential you understand our culture, protocols, decision-making timeframes and mission. We do not operate like a business; although institutions such as Johns Hopkins are as complex as many multi-national businesses. If you are an education services provider, you also need to know how to engage a higher education institution and, especially, how to initiate contact.

I find it fascinating that many inroads into higher education institutions by for-profit and non-profit services providers today — as well as many of the important innovations in higher education in the last decade — have come through colleges and schools of continuing and professional studies. These units blend an academic mission with an entrepreneurial spirit. They are often underfunded by their parent institutions relative to other departments and schools, and most have a specific mandate to produce revenue. They have tended to be built on lean financial models and, therefore, hiring of outsourcing makes perfect sense to them. They were also the historical champions of distance learning in this country, having as their goal educating non-traditional learners who prefer to learn independent of time and place constraints. While many believe these units are becoming more mainstream, it is possible what they do is simply becoming more acceptable within traditional higher education as the numbers of non-traditional students continue to rise. The willingness of these types of units and schools to partner outside of the institution to advance online learning and serve their student constituencies is now replicated at higher and higher levels within many institutions. It is not out of the ordinary nowadays to hear presidents, provosts and university boards talking in great detail about online learning and online services providers.

4. Finally, what are some of the most common roadblocks institutional leaders must overcome when entering into an administrative or academic service partnership?

As an academic and as a human being, you are always at the mercy of what you do not know. The challenge for many higher level institutional leaders is they do not know how to partner effectively because they do not know much about partnering outside of academic circles. Most college provosts and presidents still come up through academic ranks, and nothing in their experiences as a faculty member has prepared them, especially, for partnering with for-profit entities. That is beginning to change a little, especially among college presidents, but it is still the reality in many places. As many institutions immerse themselves in online learning, what you don’t know can be a double whammy too. We are still a generation away from having institutional leaders who have, themselves, taught or taken online classes. And there is still quite a bit of skepticism in many parts of many institutions about online learning. All of this is to say partnering with online service providers may be one of the biggest challenges institutional leaders face, and the challenge for which they are least prepared.

For these and other reasons, I would have to say higher education can be its own worst enemy when it comes to the nuts and bolts of partnering. Our academic culture, in large part, makes collective decision-making necessary but time consuming and, often, very difficult. Even putting a partnership in place can take years. Add to that some of the recent attempts by our legislators at both the federal and state levels to ‘control’ what is going on in educational partnering and in online learning and you have a very confusing landscape.

Why bother, you might ask? Most of us, I think, now believe that not bothering is not an option. As academics we are generally very good at interpreting history and, despite what we like to think of as our timelessness, we know we have to live within our times. Online learning is here to stay and educated societies, fueled by it, are a social imperative. Fortunately, we are fast learners and reflective people, and what we don’t know, we will soon learn — from our partners and from ourselves.

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3 Responses to The Value and Limitations of Service Partnerships in Higher Education

  1. Dan Jones Reply

    2014/01/14 at 11:47 am

    Well said! I think this is an important message for vendors to take note of. While institutions can be naïve about the vendor partnerships they enter into, I would say that vendors often go in blindly as well, expecting the institution to have flexibility in service delivery.

    In reality, vendors have to be prepared to navigate the institution’s bureaucracy and get accustomed to answering to boards of governors and federal and state governments. Successful partnerships will acknowledge and account for these external pressures.

  2. Francis Beyer Reply

    2014/01/14 at 2:02 pm

    It’s always interesting to see an administrator’s point of view regarding outsourcing. I would caution against blanket statements about what should or shouldn’t be outsourced to a third-party vendor. For instance, while many institutions choose to retain their teaching and learning services, several have formed successful partnerships with low-cost providers, including Coursera, to deliver these functions. The key is for institutions to identify their priorities, strengths, resources and any gaps that they want addressed when they seek the services of a vendor.

  3. Kathleen Burke Reply

    2014/01/22 at 12:43 pm

    I would agree that many institutions outsource “delivery” of online courses. They may also “buy” or “rent” courses developed by other academics. My caution — which is purely my opinion — was against outsourcing the actual teaching. To their credit, the vendors seem to agree, and most are more than content to leave “content development” and teaching to the the faculty.

    And, yes, of course, strategic planning by higher ed institutions is always advisable.

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