Disruptive Innovation in Universities – Christensen & Eyring

The new book, The Innovative University, Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out, by Christensen and Eyring prompts us to think about the sustainability of the higher education sector in the US. The lessons about how Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation apply to universities can be extended beyond US shores to emerging economies where the higher education sector is evolving quickly. (full article)

Universities are among the oldest institutions of society.  While the form and functioning of universities varies from country to country and some differentiation has occurred across and within borders over time, their essential elements have actually changed very little.  There are several reasons for the slow pace of evolution of the higher education sector:

  • the university sector is largely self-regulating since accrediting bodies and teams are drawn from similar institutions
  • professional schools in universities train the leaders of the professions towards self preservation and maintaining the status quo
  • the prestige enjoyed by elite universities in society encourages others to try to mimic them.

A New Book on the Future of Higher Education

An interesting new book by Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring (The Innovative University, Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out, Jossey-Bass, 2011) has appeared and warns those in the mainstream of higher education about the potential for disruption by innovation.  Although they focus on the US system, many of their insights apply internationally as well.  This commentary explores The Innovative University and examines how the arguments put forward might play beyond the US.

Both authors are accomplished academic professionals and highly respected opinion leaders.  Accordingly, their 400 page exposition is well worth our attention.  The book is scholarly and well-referenced and expounds upon key themes:

  • The theory of disruptive innovation (pioneered by Christensen in other settings) can be applied to universities.
  • Complacency is evident in the world of higher education with the prevailing belief that many institutions are too big to fail.
  • The key to sustainability, not only for new universities, but also for many well-established ones, is to focus on what they do well and can claim as unique, rather than striving to try to become like the rare elite ones in each category (comprehensive research intensive university, liberal arts college etc.).
  • Several new universities which focus on teaching using less expensive online education are now flourishing institutions and their student outcomes are equal to those of traditional universities.

Evidence that the Higher Education Sector is Imperiled

Christensen and Eyring discuss a range of evidence with an emphasis on two areas:

  • A detailed and analytic comparison of the developmental trajectories of Harvard University and Brigham Young University-Idaho.  Harvard is an internationally known elite comprehensive research university while BYU-Idaho is a conversion from a two-year college with a clear focus on education, not research.  The influences of the leaders of Harvard and BYU-Idaho on the histories of each university are amply set forth and provide both interesting and pertinent additional insights.
  • The McKinsey report of 2010, Winning by Degrees, which postulates that the USA could graduate an additional one million individuals per year without increasing public spending or compromising quality (http://mckinseyonsociety.com/winning-by-degrees/)


Building the Case for Disruptive Innovation in Higher Education

The underlying argument which Christensen has demonstrated in his research in other sectors is simple – universities are at risk from the same disruptive forces from lower cost market entrants.  His theory is well accepted and explains the ultimate demise of many companies including US Steel, Sears and Digital Equipment Corp. and why a company like Intel has flourished.  Intel’s CEO embraced Christensen’s theory and pursued the lower end market by introducing the Celeron chip while continuing an upward trajectory with the traditional higher-power more expensive processing chips. Intel has survived. Through his extensive research, Christensen has shown that innovation in the pursuit of better, higher quality and more expensive products ultimately outstrips the consumers’ appetite. In his words, “these performance enhancements … exceed even the most demanding customers’ performance needs”.  Two consequences emerge:

  • the number of people who want the product but can no longer afford it increases and they withdraw from that market
  • lower cost alternatives emerge to serve those who have been left out of the higher end of the market.

Christensen and Eyring argue that higher education has avoided disruption by low cost competition until now for two reasons:

  • It is difficult to measure the prestige attached to elite university status
  • Accreditation brings self preservation.

The quest for increased prestige has meant that many universities just (or even far) below the elite level have increasingly emphasized research since the outputs can be easily measured (grant dollars, publications, Nobel Prize winners, etc.).  This has resulted in a diminished emphasis by faculty on teaching, increasing casualization of the teaching workforce and the use of more teaching assistants.  In this regard, the comparison drawn between Harvard and BYU-Idaho is sharp – Harvard is a truly elite powerhouse as a comprehensive research-intensive institution.  BYU-Idaho overtly emphasizes teaching and learning with reduction in costs and increasing access for more students.  It offers flexible delivery between face-to-face and online and manages its educational programs tightly.  BYU-Idaho even uses disciplined production management principles in the process of improving course offerings.

The authors also point out that the increasing maturity and sophistication of online delivery systems has brought success and rising recognition to universities like DeVry University and Western Governors’ University.  These institutions deliver high quality online programs with outcomes in student performance that compare favorably with traditional institutions.

Christensen and Eyring do not undervalue all that a traditional campus experience brings but repeatedly emphasize that that experience comes at a considerable cost which may not be sustainable.

This work is clearly and elegantly written and provides a powerful warning for all involved in higher education in the US.  As one reviewer noted “… [for] those who want a thoughtful, reasoned – even gentle – approach to the extraordinary opportunities (and massive problems) facing higher education, there is Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring’s new book, the Innovative University.”

Implications for the International Sector

Much of Christensen and Eyring’s argument applies just as powerfully to well-developed countries of the Western world as it does to the US.  Furthermore, as many nations emerge from tyranny, are buoyed by new wealth from natural resources or rapidly expand their middle classes, there is an aggressive push to develop or reform their higher education systems around the world.  Those of us who have worked in this sector over recent years recognize the familiar request that we help guide a new or reforming institution to be like Harvard, Oxford, UC- Berkeley or any of the other relatively small number of internationally known elite institutions.  In extending Christensen and Eyring’s reasoning to the international domain, several observations are pertinent:

  • The potential for disruption and failure in the international sector is real for many of the same reasons as for the US market.
  • Even though large sovereign funds are supporting higher education development in newly wealthy countries, finances will ultimately be an issue for sustainability in currently wealthy countries as oil and natural resources are depleted
  • The vast populations of India and China, which are eager for higher education, simply will not be able to afford to receive their higher education in traditional expensive western-style universities
  • If less expensive but equally effective higher education takes hold in countries with vast emergent middle classes (e.g. India, China, Brazil), there is the potential not only to disrupt the small number of elite national universities at home but also to disrupt work force around the world.  The latter is especially true in professional or technical disciplines where qualifications are increasingly portable transnationally such as in the health professions, engineering and computer science.
  • Good governance and sound leadership will be critical in developing universities in the emerging world.  Many such developments are occurring at a pace and scale far beyond the slower development of Harvard and BYU-Idaho over centuries or decades.  This will mean that the leaders must be seasoned and that good governance must be in place from the outset.

Christensen and Eyring have shown us that the path ahead for universities is complex and fraught – we do well to heed their warning around the world.  The basic elements necessary to the delivery of high quality educational programs – high quality faculty, committed students and sufficient resources – are the same for new and reforming universities wherever in the world they are. Each reforming or new university needs a clear charter of purpose, wise decisions about their plan to achieve the desired outcomes and mindfulness about the resources required for the long term.