From cottage industry to international certification

It’s a few years from now and you’re sitting in your office in an old Victorian building in your new position as Dean of Students. You thought that this would be the perfect job in a small university town with an easy walk to work, great colleagues and eager new students each year. However, you are looking at enrolment for this year and it’s down 30%. You have a major problem and you have some explaining to do about last year’s recruiting drive. What’s going on?

Online degrees now compete quite fiercely with “traditional universities”, especially those from reputable institutions that only charge $6,000 versus your current tuition fees of $45,000 for a Bachelor’s degree. However, you cannot decrease your fees as you’re facing rising costs. Just heating the dorms is an ever-increasing part of your budget, with oil at $3.50 a litre. You’ve even discussed shifting the academic calendar to take advantage of the warmer Summer months. On top of that, the university just negotiated a costly settlement with the faculty association, after a prolonged strike.

Robert Cringely explained the situation in 2008, but few schools or universities took action:

This [education] is an unstable system. Homeschooling, charter schools, these things didn’t even exist when I was a kid, but they are everywhere now. There’s only one thing missing to keep the whole system from falling apart – ISO certification.

I’ve written about this for years and nobody ever paid attention, but ISO certification is what destroyed the U.S. manufacturing economy. With ISO 9000 there was suddenly a way to claim with some justification that a factory in Malaysia was precisely comparable to an IBM plant on the Hudson. Prior to then it was all based on reputation, not statistics. And now that IBM plant is gone.

Daniel Lemire likened it to a similar business phenomenon:

Not long ago people bought European electronics because it was supposedly better. Now? These days are long gone.

At a certain point in time (2008?) the cost-benefits of a university education will be put in question. How expensive does it have to be before the majority opt out or look for “good enough” options? Once a certification body gets recognized by enough employers, it could become the de facto as well as the de jure standard.

6 Responses to “From cottage industry to international certification”

  1. Gilbert

    Nice post.

    Certification will eventually achieve critical mass. Not sure if the certification body wave will last very long.

    As external certification bodies gain acceptance alternate forms to classroom teaching grab a share of the markets.Extra pressure on universities hurt them. The university reputations go down hill. Enrolment declines and reputation gets even worse. Certification gains in value.

    The value of a diploma to employers is highly psychological. Once people start questioning the value of diplomas the system can fall very quickly. Many of us don’t really give a hoot about what paper someone has. And in the work I currently do the diploma has no relevance.

    I think that the certification wave will become predominant for a few years and then it will be replaced by a more “Network/Web” way of aknowledging competency.

    Certification/Assessment done in a social networking context seems to be a natural extension to changes we have seen in other places. The technologies to support this aren’t quite there but they are very close.

    In a world where you buy expensive items on Ebay, where you find a mate on PlentyOfFish why could you certainly figure out a way to assess competencies without depending on a diploma from one network instance.

    I think it is time to let the “Network” do its thing.


  2. Daniel Lemire

    Gilbert: I think that Cringely means certification of the programs and schools.

    For example, you get a degree certificed by institute Y. Employers start looking for certified degrees. All of a sudden, the University of Phoenix offers certified degrees… It is all downhill from there for heavy-league schools.

  3. Gilbert

    Yes. Daniel I understood.

    But I think the shift will go from institutional certification to assessing individuals. Degrees will still be recognized by Universities and between themselves. Degrees are important to these entities.

    The world outside of universities and colleges doesn’t really need to make hiring decisions based on degrees. In many situations a degree does not create real value for the employer. It has been a long time since I’ve heard someone around me say “Lets hire a computer science graduate”.

    In the past we were not in a position to assess educational level. The degree played a big role. Now we are more interested in finding people who can do the job. I have been involved in 3 projects so far where I see the shift.

    I am a bit biased because of working on the assessment side for so long. Am mostly called in to projects where assessmemnt can play a major role.

    And Daniel it sure would be interesting to get your views on how collaborative filtering could play a role in assessment models.

    A degree (diploma) is a byproduct of the press. The Network world will/should create a new mechanism.


  4. Rob Paterson

    There is no way back for the universities – I think that they will be the newspapers of their time.

    I think less because a new school can get a pass by having a credit but the other idea that has emerged in this conversation that the kids won’t need them.

    In the US today there are no jobs no matter what piece of paper you have. There is nothing on the horizon to change that.

    So a BA + 40K of debt is a millstone. Soon parents and kids will get smart and walk away


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