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Is education sector ready for major disruption?

We live in an era of disruptive innovations in which no sector will be spared. As always, disruptive innovations respond to problems. In Kenya, the policy makers are helping to articulate problems that such innovations ought to address. Soon there will be a breakthrough.

Already, there have been notable successes. When mobile money came, the banking sector was shaken up. In defence of their territory, banks have befriended financial technology (often referred to as Fintech) experts.
Even in the education sector, there are many attempts to introduce disruptive innovations. Indeed education has been in the radar of disruption worshippers in not just Kenya but globally.

The introduction of massive open online courses (MOOCS) is just but one way of slowly introducing far reaching disruptive innovation.

Just like Uber in transport and Airbnb in hospitality, it won’t take too long before we start grappling with what we will do if indeed the disruption sorts our problems, especially in the financing of higher education, mass enrolment and poor quality teaching.

Listening to the Education secretary last week, I gathered that the reforms, especially in higher education, are so far reaching that the sector may take time to accept.

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Liberalisation of higher education means that public universities will no longer enjoy the monopoly they have held over best performing students and academics.

The big question is whether the sector is ready for a major disruption like that.
People all over the world want quality and affordable service that is offered efficiently. The public can only be sympathetic to change if higher education providers become more responsive to people’s needs, become more efficient and less dependent on state funding.

As such, universities must seek to innovatively disrupt themselves while watching out on how to deal with external disruptions.

It is a contradiction when public universities seek autonomy and more state funding at the same time. Unlike universities in the north, Africa has more demand for education with limited supply of opportunities.

Owing to the fact that there are many problems in Africa, universities present a greater opportunity to develop new innovations for the world.

With innovations, universities will attract more royalties and patent licensing income as a strategy to reduce state dependence.

Financial independence will necessitate autonomy and the power to chart their own destiny, including offering competitive salaries to their faculty.

In the past, there was no need to think out of the box to attract more income from collaborations with industry.

State universities had the monopoly of state funded students. In effect, there was no competition. Now, policy has shifted.

The student has the power to choose which university to attend since the Higher Education Loans Board will fund students irrespective of which college they choose to attend.

This means that if the private universities have a lower teacher student ratio and offer quality programmes, they will attract better students.

In a competitive environment, as envisaged by policy makers, quality and service will improve. But that too will cause major realignment with faculty shifting to more efficient institutions.

Some universities will seek to improve by developing their own endowment funds for scholarships to attract the best faculty, students and building new business models.

MIT for example, is known for what it calls “fostered problem-solving approach that encourages researchers to work together across departments, fields, and institutional boundaries.”

The university has forged close collaborations that “have included thousands of fruitful partnerships with industry and other leading research institutions.”

As a result, more than 700 companies worked with faculty and students in 2015 attracting $134 million in research sponsorship by industry.

At the same time, MIT researchers had approximately 800 new invention disclosures and $46.2 million in total licensing income.

In Africa, the University of Stellenbosch led the continent with the most successive model in creating a technology transfer infrastructure in the continent.

The institution created a holding company for spin-offs, Unistel Holdings, which it uses as a vehicle to collaborate with industry.

It had a combined turnover of around $42 million in 2015 and has led to the creation of several jobs.

This model has worked for several other universities, creating greater autonomy and facilitating efficiency in responding to the needs of their industry collaborators.

Local public universities, however, cannot replicate the Stellenbosch model.

A litany of laws ranging from the complex procurement procedures to the proposed changes in the public financial management Bill now in parliament stand in the way of innovation. Even universities with research funds hardly use them.

We must read between the lines of policy makers’ speech and prepare to deal with the consequences. We either start to disrupt ourselves or we get disrupted.

The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi’s School of Business.

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