Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Can a private investment fund make a difference in higher education?

Just today, via TechCrunch, I came across the announcement of a 100 million dollar University Ventures fund. German media giant Bertelsmann is the lead investor, together with the University of Texas Investment Management Company (they manage UT’s endowment).

This is how they see their mission and strategy:
UV is an investment fund with over $100M in committed capital focused exclusively on the global higher education sector. UV pursues a differentiated strategy of innovation from within – partnering with (rather than competing against) traditional institutions.
By partnering with top-tier universities and colleges, and then strategically directing private capital to develop programs of exceptional quality that address major economic and social needs, UV expects to set new standards for student outcomes. Specifically, UV is committed to establishing data-driven programs that ensure superior student outcomes, as well as to leveraging technology to lower cost while improving access. All UV programs are student-centric, focused on student retention and completion.
I encourage you to read their full announcement, it’s quite interesting. But it raises some questions. UV estimates the global higher education market to be over 1 trillion (that’s a 1 with 12 zeros, a million times a million) dollar, so UV’s 100 million fund is 0.01 percent of that market. They seem to expect quite some leverage.

My biggest issue is with their strategy of working together with existing institutions. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about universities, it is that they are about the worst learning organizations I know (probably the only institution worse is the Catholic church). All investments in e-learning in the past 20 years or so haven’t made substantial changes in existing HE institutions. Technology has been added to otherwise unchanged curricula and educational practices, with no substantial gains in outcomes whatsoever.

In fact, I can think of only one example of a mildly successful innovation in HE educational practices in the Netherlands, and that example was established well before technology has started to not disrupt HE. In 1976, Maastricht University opened its doors. This university designed its curricula based on the philosophy of problem-based learning, and only hired staff that would adhere to the principles of problem-based learning.

My key takeaway from this is that if you want something really new in HE, you must at least start building a completely new program and design it from the ground up. I wonder if this can succeed when your strategy is to work together with existing institutions.

Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see how this develops.

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