The last couple of weeks have seen the unveiling of two massive but interesting strategic gambles taken by a couple of US public universities. The kind of strategy moves that universities in other countries can only dream about. I am speaking, of course, about the Purdue’s buy-out of Kaplan University and the University of Arizona’s attempt to create a global set of “microcampuses”.
Let’s start with the Kaplan/Purdue merger/buy-out/service agreement – what is it, exactly? Well, it isn’t easy to explain. Basically, Purdue, a prestigious research university in Indiana, has negotiated a deal in which it will create a new, arms-length (meaning not on the public books and not in receipt of public funding) branch of the institution consisting entirely of the operations of Kaplan University, a private for-profit institution with something of a checkered legal history. Purdue paid Graham Holdings (former owners of the Washington Post) $1 for the deed to the company, but they keep the operating team (and, crucially, the marketing crew) and Graham gets paid to operate the company for up to thirty years (the university has an opt-out clause after six), sharing in the profits along the way. So on the one hand you could describe it Kaplan being bought out; on another level, you could describe this as a form of Business Process Outsourcing, with Purdue as Kaplan’s only client.
There are two ways of looking at this. On the one hand, it could be argued that Purdue is making a big bet on adult and online education and is moving to make itself a player in this area in the quickest way possible (buying off the shelf is way better than DIY). Purdue gets a national network of campuses with a good technological backbone; Kaplan gets a non-profit status and some of Purdue’s prestige. What’s not to like?
Two things, really. The first is that we don’t really know why Purdue is doing this. It could be that they wat to bring a public, research university ethos to the Kaplan network, but there’s not a lot of evidence for that. For one thing, Kaplan’s marketing team – the one that ran the company straight into a Massachusetts legal battle over claims of high-pressure selling – is intact. For another, no one’s ever tried merging two education cultures this distinct. It doesn’t immediately seem like a marriage made in heaven
Claims that this is in fact a reverse take-over – a privatization of public education – are, I think, overblown. There’s a reasonable chance quite a lot of good could come from this. But don’t count out the possibility that this could turn into a disaster, too. No one’s ever tried something like this before, so it’s hard to say.
The other really interesting and bold move came from the University of Arizona, which announced that it is going to create 25 “microcampuses” around the world capable collectively of teaching about 25,000 students per year. Though U of A is technically the “senior” institution in the state, in terms of innovation it regularly plays second-fiddle to ASU and its hyperactive President, Michael Crow.
The idea of the microcampus is not to create little branch campuses around the world. Rather, the idea is to embed spaces within partner universities where the two universities can co-deliver certain programs. There’s a lot of upside to this: students in the host country (at the moment, mainly in Asia and the Middle East) can access an Arizona degree for about a fifth of what it would cost them to up sticks and study in Tucson, partner universities will benefit financially and academically from a permanent teaching partnership with University of Arizona staff, and Arizona gets global exposure while sharing risk with other parties and avoiding the hassle of actually setting up and managing branch campuses. And – unlike the Purdue/Kaplan arrangement – it has real backing from U of A staff. It’s a smart move all around.
You may, like me, occasionally ask yourself: why can’t Canadian universities act like that? Why don’t they have the gumption to try things that are big, different and global? Often, when making Canada-US university comparisons the answer is “well, private universities have more money/flexibility”. But that’s not the case here: Purdue and Arizona are public universities. There’s no reason that a Dalhousie or U of T couldn’t do the same.
Americans just have more chutzpah, period. We could use more of it up here.