Prepare for disruption: Hong Kong universities haven’t been disrupted yet.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on whatsapp

University of Waterloo’s President Hamdullahpur sees Uber and MOOCs, coming, but has his own response to the disruption economy. The future is additive.


Additive education is a disruptive force within universities

They didn’t see it coming. Yellow cabs were everywhere, the global symbol of urban life and transit. It was an industry that just worked. And then Uber.

From healthcare, advanced manufacturing, automotive and beyond there are countless examples today of innovation that is disrupting or has disrupted what otherwise appear to be totally stable, perfectly acceptable products, processes and even sectors.

Fuelled by easy access to enabling technology, the disruption economy has arrived, it’s here to stay.

Every industry has to identify their disruption risks and ask tough questions, including the most important one of all: are we going to be the disrupted, or the disruptors?

In higher education, there’s this sneaky feeling that maybe we’ve weathered the storm.

Remember when massive-open-online-courses (MOOCS) were going to upend traditional higher education as we knew it? The 90% drop out rate for MOOC students probably means the disruptive force of MOOCs was gravely overhyped.

Still, while everyone was hyperventilating about the advent of online learning — which in fact adds a valuable new dimension to university education — a disruption did indeed take root.

Traditional universities take kids from high school, bolt even more knowledge onto them, and then – in the hope they’ve matured in the mean time – let industry sort them out

As disruptive innovations force global industries to change faster than they ever have, industry’s demand on the providers of human capital is fundamentally changing.

Daniel Gelernter, CEO of the New York-based startup Dittach, recently told the Wall Street Journal that he wouldn’t hire computer science majors for his developer teams because too many lack the skill set to do the job. And if they have the skills “most likely learned them on [their] own, in between problem sets.”

His view isn’t unique amongst the world’s C-suite. The problem lies within the antiquated way we sequence the process of human capital formation.

Much of the time it goes like this. Traditional universities take kids from high school, bolt even more knowledge onto them, and then – in the hope they’ve matured in the mean time – let industry sort them out as they start their careers.

Some will say this is evidence that universities are an out-of-date concept. Vocational schools, for one, have made good headway claiming they are the places that build bridges from school to jobs. CEOs like Gelernter have even floated the idea that grads should take diplomas in real world problems.

But there’s an even better way. Going forward, universities can make intellectual and professional development truly go hand in hand, getting knowledgeable, career-ready graduates to big firms and startups like Gelernter’s, faster.

We can achieve this. It means embracing a student-first organisational configuration and culture, with three core features: enriching professional experiences, world class curricula and pedagogy, and research intensity in disciplines of global relevance and impact.

“The problem lies within the antiquated way we sequence the process of human capital formation.

The winning formula at the University of Waterloo takes the form of what you might call additive education.

Instead of just presuming that our students will take our raw knowledge and turn themselves into savvy, conscientious, communicative, team-oriented, entrepreneurial professionals, we prepare them that way. On purpose.

Specifically, we’re the world’s leader in co-operative education (participating students rotate between academic terms and paid professional work terms) which folds the development sequence onto itself, from linear to additive.

This system provides the market with access to smart, professional young people earlier – whether as entrepreneurs or employees – and graduates them with the skills learned in the gaps between their studies, more ready to contribute to real-world business success.

This process innovation does two things. First, it produces uncommon talent. Sam Altman, the president of Silicon Valley’s startup oracle Y Combinator, said that “there is something about UWaterloo in particular that trains people to think like founders” – producing the next generation of disruptors.

It also lets us pose this question to students, their parents and hiring managers everywhere: Why wait for professional development to take place at the end of your degree instead of the beginning?

Additive education is a disruptive force within universities because it meets the central emerging demand that society is placing on our higher education: broad-based human capital formation that is deliberate, not just organic. All while earning a degree.

The degree part is important. Universities, especially those intensively engaged in research, are uniquely equipped to bring together the essential ingredients that will produce the type of people the disruption economy needs to thrive. These people need academic study fused with workplace experience and exposure to cutting-edge research.

This kind of value proposition can’t be replicated elsewhere. It can’t be MOOCed and it can’t be Googled. To deliver an additive higher education experience, you need a campus with great faculty doing deeply curious and real-world relevant research, partner employers with a vested interest in the education process, and you need a sophisticated operational platform to ensure the system is integrated and focused on the sum of the service, not the parts.

Additive education works because it doesn’t make a trade-off between scholarship and talent development: it achieves both.

Professor Feridun Hamdullahpur is the President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. Waterloo is recognized as Canada’s leading innovation university, and Professor Hamdullahpur is in Hong Kong this week to reach out to relevant Asian audiences and deepen connections between the Waterloo and leading innovation centres, educational institutions and business partners.