Why do students hire us?


Is a question posed by Clayton Christensen and colleagues in a 2011 report, Disrupting College: How Disruptive Innovation Can Deliver Quality and Affordability to Postsecondary Education.  Disruption has since had much attention in the media and literature; the hiring function somewhat less.

So why do students hire their chosen universities?  In a recent Gallup-Purdue study of 30,000 U.S. graduates it was found that which university you attend (large, small, elite or not) makes little difference to your workplace engagement and overall well-being.  What matters is the experience you have – or not.

Surprised?  I wasn’t.  We’ve known this for a long time.

We’ve known, according to Ron Barnett in 2007 that, “… that the student’s being and becoming is more significant than the student’s knowing efforts. In higher education, otology does indeed trump epistemology.  It follows that – even in higher education – it is the student’s being that should occupy her teacher’s primary attentions

We’ve known, according to Chickering and Gamson in 1987, that there are seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education make a difference.

We’ve known, according to Robert Pace in the 70s, Alexander Astin in the 80s, and Geroge Kuh in the 90s that student engagement predicts achievement.

We’ve known since the 70s from work in Europe, Australia and North America, how the quality of student learning is influenced by the quality of teaching and the experience, conceptions, values and norms promoted by the institution and its staff.

What we haven’t known so well is how national policy will impact on students when it comes to hiring their university of choice.  In my previous post I referred to two UK reports published in 2010 and 2012 that have some insights and more that help to answer Gallup’s question, as well as something else we perhaps don’t know so well:

“When colleges and universities are setting internal strategies, designing new programs and curricula, deciding what performance measures faculty should be compensated for, and working to attract future students, what are they to do?”



Barnett, R (2007) A Will to Learn: Being a student in an age of uncertainty Maidenhead: Open University press p.165

See also, Dall’Alba, G. and Barnacle, R. (2007) ‘An Ontological Turn for Higher Education’, Studies in Higher Education, 32/6, pp.679–91.

2 thoughts on “Why do students hire us?”

  1. Great post Ian. I find most of Christensen’s work on disruption in business insightful; most of his work on applying these insights to Higher Education misplaced. The fundamental problem is Christensen is asking the wrong question: we shouldn’t be asking why students hire universities; but instead who hires universities; or, even better, how do universities serve society? Our answer to this more fundamental question will depend (ultimately) on our epistemology. It follows that, while it might be true (qua Barnett) that for the student ontology trumps epistemology, for Universities epistemology dictates ontology: it is our view of the very nature of knowledge that defines who we are, how we function and our place in society.

    1. I think Clay Christensen is right on the money with respect to higher education. This is why the elite universities are reaching down to the bottom of the educational market place with cheaper fully online degrees. The complexity of higher education as a cultural institution engaged in knowledge work, makes it impossible to predict how any one university will survive. But much like an individual person, its resilience will come down to identity, reputation and more than a measure of luck.

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