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The platform university: a new data-driven business model for profiting from HE

Ben Williamson highlights the dawn of the "platform university", bringing platform capitalism to the campus as a student-data driven source of profit.
This article is more than 5 years old

Ben Williamson is a Chancellor’s Fellow in research at the Edinburgh Futures Institute and the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh.

Digital software platforms have changed everyday life for billions around the world. Platforms for higher education are now shaking up the way universities operate too. The “platform university” is being built on top of the campus, and its main motive is to profit from the HE market through the lucrative currency of student data.

Platforms have become the dominant technologies of the current moment. They act as intermediaries between different groups, such as by enabling real-time online chat, or exchanging user information with advertisers. Additionally, they extend rapidly, usually as they’re free to use. This provides platform owners with unprecedented quantities of data for monitoring, improving and further monetising their services. As a result, platform capitalism has become the dominant business model of our time.

Unbundling HE

A market in HE platforms is now expanding fast. The platform university is the result of multiple trends—demands for enhanced performance measurement; the opening up of HE to alternative providers; increased marketization, internationalisation, competition, and innovation; and the “unbundling” of HE into discrete services for outsourcing to platform providers, which then repackage those services for sale back to the sector.

Platforms for matching students to degrees and graduates to jobs have become especially successful, and are prototypical of what the platform university portends. One of the most widely used, Studyportals, markets its service as an “International Study Choice Platform”. In 2018 alone it “helped 36 million students around the world to explore study programmes and make an informed choice, throughout over 190,000 courses at 3,200+ educational institutes across 110 countries”.

Likewise, Debut uses data provided by student users—including a psychometric competencies test—to match graduates to employer internships and graduate schemes. It was recently awarded £5million in venture capital to train its AI-based recommendation algorithm to make better automated matches. And its entrepreneurial founder claims Debut’s “cognitive psychometric intelligence” profiles are more useful to employers for matching graduates to jobs than “irrelevant” degrees or academic success.

The US platform Handshake also recently received US$40million venture capital from an investment team that included Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Handshake already claims 14 million student users, with uptake by over 700 university career centres and 300,000 employers. Its 2018 Campus to Career report details employment trends of over 9 million students who have used the platform—positioning itself as an authority on employability.

Meanwhile, the platform for professionals, LinkedIn, continues to expand into HE. Research by Janja Komljenovic shows how LinkedIn is creating an alternative credentialing platform to link graduates to employers through “qualification altmetrics”, thereby “building a global marketplace for skills to run in parallel to, or instead of university degrees”. Like Handshake and Studyportals, LinkedIn has access to huge quantities of student data to deepen its penetration into HE employability services.

HE on demand

As well as reshaping the university around new employability priorities and demands, advocates of the platform university see more and more aspects of HE moving to software. One is Woolf University, a “borderless university” proposed to run on a “software platform” and “the latest technology to support teachers and students anywhere in the world”.

The global education business Pearson also recently announced plans to offer on-demand services through a “global digital platform”. Bypassing the university to market “pay-to-view” education streaming services direct to the consumer, it plans to become the Netflix of education. Simultaneously, it is selling online learning platforms to universities to improve internationalisation performance.

But Pearson is not just making new platform products. Its report Demand Driven Education details a vision for merging work and learning around employability skills. “Demand driven education” would “focus more strongly than ever on ensuring graduates are job-ready and have access to rewarding careers”—and could utilise artificial intelligence-based talent analytics to “identify potential matches between learners and specific career paths”.

Pearson is therefore specifying what the future of HE should be, and building software platforms to accomplish that vision.

Students as raw material for monetisation

By transforming HE to be more demand-driven and on-demand, platform companies are making the sector into a profitable market. Venture capital investment in HE platforms can be eye-watering. The plagiarism detection platform Turnitin was acquired recently for US$1.74 billion by the media conglomerate Advance Publications. Turnitin uses student assignments as data to train its plagiarism detection algorithm, in order to sell ever-more sophisticated services back to HE institutions.

Despite studies repeatedly showing Turnitin’s high error rate, and considerable concern over the mistrust it creates while monetising students’ intellectual property, its acquisition clearly demonstrates huge market demand for data-driven HE platforms. It changes how students are valued—not for their independent intellectual development but as raw material to be mined for market advantage.

Platform capitalism in the academy

The university is being transformed by platform technologies and companies. Although software platforms have been inside HE for years, HE is now moving inside the software platform. In the emerging platform university, more and more HE services are being delegated to software, algorithms, and automation. The business logic of platform capitalism has captured the academy, and the public role of the university has become a source of private financial gain.

At a time of budgetary austerity and myriad other pressures on HE, the platform university is a perversely pricy technical solution to complex structural, institutional, and political problems. Significant HE spending is now flowing from universities to platform providers, along with data they can use to their own advantage as market actors in an emerging sub-sector of platform capitalism. Unless universities act collectively in the sector’s own interests, they may find themselves positioned as educational product providers and data collection partners for the new HE platform industry.

4 responses to “The platform university: a new data-driven business model for profiting from HE

  1. Perhaps I am misunderstanding something, but I would have thought that the most common educational platforms in higher education are learning management systems such as Blackboard, Canvas and Moodle. Platforms are also common for libraries, for research repositories, journals, for student, finance and staff records, and other administrative services.

  2. The difference is that software platforms which facilitate information being passed along from teachers to students (Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle) are unidirectional and the service being provided is to universities in order to facilitate these learning interactions.

    Platform business models have multiple consumers that they market different products to. A useful example would be Uber. They serve as the platform which connects one service provider (drivers) with another group of consumers (riders). Each have unique services being provided to them. In the case of platform universities the two consumer groups would be students who are provided an education, and then they would sell on student data to companies which could monetize that information.

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