| 6 minute read

The dilemma: Academic freedom vs. generating revenue

Elena Galán-Muros
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Join us as we delve into the dynamic world of higher education with Melora Sundt, Chief Academic Officer for Noodle Partners. Melora discusses her role at Noodle Partners and explores the ever-evolving landscape of universities. From addressing the challenges of commoditization and maintaining a competitive edge, to finding the balance between quality and affordability, she provides valuable insights for institutions seeking sustainable growth. Discover how universities can adapt to the changing needs of students, embrace agile campus models, and deliver exceptional learning experiences in a digital era.

In this article, we summarise part of that conversation, but you can listen to the full interview in our podcast:

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Sarah Jaber:
I’d like to start by hearing about Noodle Partners and your role there. It is an interesting concept and probably not very familiar to many of our listeners.

Melora Sundt:
Noodle is a tech-enabled service company that helps universities move strategically into the future. It began by helping them move degree programs online, but universities’ needs have expanded beyond that. We do everything in the areas of marketing and enrolment to attract new students, learning design, helping them take their programs and reconceptualize them for more engaging learning, the technology integration that goes along with that, the placement activities that go along with field-based programs. It’s the whole array of services that you might need to support the learning experience within a university.

Sarah Jaber:
For those who aren’t aware, Melora was invited as one of the contributors for our initiative, the Future of University’s Thought book (North American Edition), in which she wrote a thought-provoking piece called A Tale of Two Values. It explores different considerations for the future of universities, including how they can stay true to their values while still generating enough revenue to sustain and thrive. In your article, you also talk about some of the threats or challenges that higher education institutions are facing, can you tell us more about that?

Melora Sundt:
I think one of the biggest challenges is the commoditization that seems to be happening among students: for many of them, getting a degree is a checkbox. It is a certification that gives them entree into a career path and, from their point of view, it doesn’t matter where that degree comes from.

It’s hard to explain why a student should spend a certain amount of money to come to your institution when they start just looking at the bottom line”.

That makes it difficult for institutions to compete, unless you are at an institution that has tremendous brand recognition and a name that everybody knows.

What I learned is that having a sense of identity as a school, institution or program, can really make a difference. A program is not just a collection of courses, you should be really thinking about what the end game is. If two years from now, employers are coming and grabbing up all your students because they are the best out there, what is it that your students know and are able to do?

And then, how do you infuse that through the program? It involves faculty having conversations, thinking about their strengths, what are they good at, what do they love, what are they passionate about.

Sarah Jaber:
How do you balance delivering quality and delivering value while still not inflating prices and not having to charge exorbitant fees for the programs?

Melora Sundt:
It is challenging. It’s expensive to run a university, especially if you are not getting any kind of government funding. But it is important to think about what kind of quality experience can you bring to students. You don’t have to be everything to everybody, but you have to do something really well.

If you focus on what the accrediting body dictates for the curriculum, that program is going to look like every other program that also has to meet the same credentialing requirements”.

I would then encourage to think the next step. It’s a challenging conversation, but it’s not impossible. There may be regional needs that make sense for the program to address, or there may be a body of research among the faculty that makes sense to help shape the program, or a particular student population. Whatever it is, figure that out and do that well.

Sarah Jaber:
In your article you also mention that in the future, universities will go towards an agile campus. What do you mean by it and how does this translate to universities and their teaching?

Melora Sundt:
In a couple of ways. One is that approach to teaching where you make much better use of the time when students are not in the classroom, and you can do that whether you are teaching in an on-site or an online classroom.

But the larger point is that, when we started putting programs online, we constructed them as a parallel universe. We had, in many cases, separate academic advisors and student support systems doing these online programs, online students didn’t have access to a lot of the campus, etc.

Instead, I think that the next wave for campuses is to be agile and providing these services regardless of where the students and where the faculty are.

It is also much more cost effective if you get into a single system that can support students no matter where they are”.

Interested in more insights like this?

You can listen now to Monroe France (Vice Provost for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice at Tufts University) discuss how to champion the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion across all levels of an institution in this episode, or to Ian Thompson (Head of UTS Animal Logic Academy) talk about how UTS has created a ground-breaking model for their master’s program in this episode.

Stay tuned for the next episode on this series and don’t forget to follow us on your preferred podcast platform!

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