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Thought Thursdays
The Uberisation of universities

​It is 22:43 on 2 January 2016 and I have diligently completed my duoLingo French exercises for the day. The fact that this no.1-rated Apple app assists millions of people to self-learn languages through gamification is phenomenal. It is fun and it gives me flexibility to study when and where I want – almost for free. It is truly an effective way to give more students access to learning, especially in getting to grips with the basics. This makes me excited about learning experiences of the future!

When Lazarus Muchenje recently wrote in a BDlive article (2 December 2015) that “[t]he nationwide student fees protests were heavy on demands and light on solutions. Will the Uber of tertiary education please stand up?” it made me think. As a marketer I know that cost usually becomes an issue when clients do not feel they are receiving value. People are often willing to pay, as long as they feel they are receiving a positive return on their equity. Hence Uber’s wild success, notwithstanding its flexible pricing model. 

Growing economic concerns, namely student debt and unemployment, are driving students to seek higher returns on education. Is there a window of opportunity being presented to us in the form of unhappy students? 

In April 2015, LinkedIn spent R35 billion purchasing, a supplier of online consumer-focused courses. LinkedIn, a social networking platform for professionals with over 400 million members, used its database to analyse which institutions and courses are launching graduates into which long-term career trajectories. And it is responding with a flexible online platform. Certain aspects of the access economy (1) are assisting in this significant societal shift to embrace technology when it creates convenience, flexibility and value. In associated sectors it is a shift in which state-regulated service  intermediaries are expanding and including information and data management intermediaries like Uber. What opportunities​ await higher education providers in the midst of our reordering of our material world – a shift away from owning to renting; from assets centrally controlled to ecosystems managed by platforms?  

Past innovative trends will need to be taken to a new level to translate this business model for use in the classroom. Among them are the uses of technology to transform learning experiences, such as Moocs, flipped classrooms, gamification and ‘student-driven flexible study modes’. All this is leading to, not least, the “demise of the traditional academic year”, as a recent survey of UK universities​ concluded. Continuing the theme, an editorial in the Times Higher Education laments that “the UK has world-leading research universities, but what it doesn’t have is a higher education equivalent of Amazon or Google, with global reach and an aggressive online strategy”. Will embracing new enabling technologies to reach more students be able to deliver high-quality, appropriate education to more people? 

Here are a few Uber-inspired ideas to consider:

  • Perhaps we need to turn the question on its head by focusing less on the institutions doing the educating and more on the students being educated. Applying empathy to the student reality and, most important, engaging them as critical stakeholders when designing a collaborative future could be mutually beneficial.
  • Based on the Japanese word for continuous improvement, Kaizen education refers to the need for individuals to gain new knowledge throughout their careers to remain relevant and competitive in the modern economy. Capturing relevant qualitative and quantitative information and staying in contact with existing students will be critical, as the LinkedIn scenario shows. Being able to analyse and synthesise our databases and student feedback, as Uber does with its client feedback, and incorporating this information into practice for repeat business could possibly become our unique selling point (USP) of the future.
  • As student demand for non-traditional degree programmes rises, it generates new opportunities. The idea of knowledge as a currency reflects the anticipated growth of alternative systems which demonstrate knowledge of specific competencies, rather than formal qualifications, as many successful entrepreneurs have proved. How we translate this into practice by offering (or partnering with) learner opportunities to network; to observe; to question; to experience the real world in a virtual or online classroom (which can even be a smart phone) could be a positive response to this growing trend.

Introducing the higher education equivalent of the Uber model would be disruptive and challenging, but starting to create an addition, rather than an alternative, to the public university system may be more feasible. This could release some societal pressure, enhance our institutional offering and create even more opportunities for students and faculty who are looking for flexibility and good value. I know that big, non-traditional players are thinking about this, and in doing so, they are shifting our stakeholders’ perception of higher education. I do not know what answers may be out there, but I am thinking about it.

 (1)The access economy is a business model where goods and services are traded on the basis of access rather than on ownership. It refers to renting things temporarily rather than selling them permanently. The term arose as a correction to the term ‘sharing economy’ because major players in the sharing economy, such as Airbnb and Uber, are commercial enterprises whose businesses do not in fact involve any sharing. The access model uses a technology platform, often accessed via mobile phone, to connect suppliers with consumers.​

Anne-marie Le Roux.jpg

Anne-marie le Roux is an independent business consultant, part-time faculty at USB Executive Development (USB-ED) and UCT Graduate School of Business, and an accredited business coach. Her areas of expertise include strategy, marketing, innovation and design thinking.

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