Corporation Oxford

The illusion of permanence, and the persistence of innovation

Corporation Oxford

(Source: Tom Spencer)

IN a recent FT article, Chairman of Risk Capital Partners Luke Johnson made some interesting comments about his alma mater, Oxford University:

Oxford University, my alma mater, is a classic case of a complacent establishment that is refusing to reinvent itself. It will consequently find life much harder in the 21st century. Britain’s finest educational name … ignores the explosion in online learning and fails dismally to exploit its intellectual property commercially … It lives off past glories, and is doomed to fade unless it reforms vigorously.

Johnson is arguing that Oxford needs to reinvent itself, and refuses to do so. After 800 years as one of the world’s leading educational institutions, Oxford has lost its way.

The Case for Reinvention

Universities are not normally candidates for “reinvention”, and so in making his claim Johnson appears to be likening Oxford to a company, “Corporation Oxford”. We take it that Johnson’s position as the partner of a private equity firm makes him well qualified to comment on the business of education.

The language of capitalism focuses on efficiency and optimisation, and if these are the measures of success for a university then Oxford is failing badly. Oxford’s tutorial system, collegiate model and arcane administrative processes are expensive, and if Johnson were in charge we imagine he would dispense with them directly.

Oxford has often been accused of ivory tower elitism and of being resistant to change, and there is more than an element of truth in these claims. 

Oxford’s long history and strong reputation mean that top down organisational changes happen slowly. After all, the Oxford dons have more to lose than to gain by making hasty changes to a system that has stood the test of time.

But while the sandstone buildings may give the illusion of permanence, under the surface Oxford is a hive of activity and continuous change.

The Persistence of Innovation

In recent years, Oxford has been drawn into the heart of the business, technology, and entrepreneurship world by a small and committed band of innovators.

They include a few well known faces and more than a few unsung heroes.

Here are just three examples of the steps that the trailblazers have taken so far:

  1. Said Business School: Established in 1996, Oxford’s Said Business School is one of the newest and most entrepreneurial business schools in the world. Dean Tufano, former HBS Professor, reinvented the traditional MBA program by introducing Oxford’s 1+1 MBA, a course that allows high potential leaders to combine the depth of study of a traditional MSc degree with the breadth of an MBA. Dean Tufano also hosts an annual event known as “Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford” – a unique forum that brings the world’s leading tech entrepreneurs to Oxford, and gives the next generation of business leaders an insider’s view on how to start, scale and run high-growth companies.
  2. Oxford Entrepreneurs: Founded in 2002 by British entrepreneur Alex Hearn, Oxford Entrepreneurs is now the largest student entrepreneurship body in the world. The society encourages innovation, and helps its members build the kind of social capital that cash strapped entrepreneurs need to bootstrap their businesses. The society is currently run by a new generation of innovators (John Stringfellow, Ridhi Kantelal and others) who last weekend hosted Oxford Inspires, an entrepreneurial conference designed to inspire innovation. Luke Johnson himself was a guest speaker at the event.
  3. Oxford Launchpad: Opened only a fortnight ago on February 17th, the Oxford Launchpad is a new breeding ground for entrepreneurs that has already spawned a number of start ups including The Renegade Times (a grass-roots publication for tech entrepreneurs spearheaded by Srin Madipalli), and a yet-to-be-named educational gaming platform (led by Charlton MakVictor Repetsky, and Shubham Anand).

But while the bottom up innovation continues, that doesn’t mean Oxford can rest on its laurels any time soon.

Room for Improvement

There is a lot of room for improvement at Oxford, and in your author’s view this would include a more ambitious adoption of online learning.

Johnson claims that Oxford is “doomed to fade unless it reforms vigorously”. And while his prediction may be a bit half baked, Oxford does need to understand and respond to a quickly changing educational landscape.

With the rise of online learning, it may soon be possible to buy good quality degrees online for a modest fee.

The question is, will this threaten Oxford’s business model?

Online learning presents big opportunities and threats for the established players, and here are two thoughts for Oxford to bear in mind.

1. Substitute for Bricks and Mortar

The way things are heading, it will soon be possible to undertake an entire degree online composed of courses from top universities. It is already possible to get a Certificate for an individual course.

For many young people, especially in America where the cost of tertiary education is highest, this will provide a compelling alternative to attending a bricks-and-mortar university.

With lower cost structures, online players will be able to undercut traditional universities on price. A scary prospect for second and third tier universities that may be unable to offer their students a strong enough community or a strong enough brand name to justify their higher fees.

How will these changes affect Oxford?

In the short run, we expect the effect to be negligible. The students likely to sign up for an online degree are not the same students who are applying to Oxford.

In the medium term, the availability of quality online education could even benefit Oxford. Increased competition at the bottom end of the market could help to destroy second and third tier universities, and thereby leave Oxford and other leading universities with the market for bricks-and-mortar tertiary education all to themselves.

Does this mean that Oxford is safe to sit by and watch the changes unfold around it?

Not quite.

2. Disruptive Innovation

Online learning is currently inferior when compared with the bricks-and-mortar alternative because it provides students with content without the community and without the established branding of a real world university.

But what would happen if Coursera created a bricks-and-mortar campus of its own? Or, perhaps, created small study hubs in every town where students could meet and collaborate?

HBS Professor Clay Christensen teaches about disruptive innovation, a process by which an inferior product can initially take root in simple applications at the bottom of the market (e.g. Coursera offering individual courses online) and then move up market to eventually displace established competitors (e.g. Oxford and Cambridge).

Disruptive innovations are typically inferior products when compared with the products offered by established players. But they are able to gain a foothold in the market because they are simpler, more convenient, more affordable, and for customers who can’t afford all the bells and whistles, they are better than nothing.

Christensen explains that in previous waves of disruptive innovation, the only companies that survived were the ones that created a new business unit that was free to operate under the new rules of engagement and free to compete with other business units of the existing parent company. For example, IBM was a mainframe manufacturer that was able to survive several waves of disruptive innovation by adopting this technique.

There is a lesson in this for Oxford. And we ask the Oxford dons directly, where is your online education business unit?

If it chooses to do so, Oxford still has time to compete with online upstarts like Coursera by creating an online education platform of its own. 

Since online education is an inferior product when compared with bricks-and-mortar education, it falls within Clay Christensen’s definition of a disruptive innovation. As such, Oxford would do well to heed Christensen’s advice by creating a new business unit which is free to compete even with the University itself.

From a branding perspective, we would also suggest that the platform be called something other than “Oxford” in order to preserve the brand of Oxford’s more premium bricks and mortar product.