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Agile universities that partner will succeed, say edtech investors

The emergence of a new breed of digital skills schools – coding academies and technology bootcamps promising high employment rates after graduation in a matter of months – are not the threat to universities that some might argue, according to a panel of veteran edtech investors.

L-R: Patrick Brothers of HolonIQ, Jan Lynn-Matern, Alex Spiro and George Straschnov. Photo: The PIE News

"It's impossible to build a university that has 150-year old brand value"

Universities’ biggest competitors will be other tertiary educators who react to the changing student marketplace and partner with commercial operators to offer a hybrid of “legacy” and “new tech” skills and learning.

This is a view posited by three edtech investors with significant experience operating in the space, who shared their thoughts at an HolonIQ summit on the future of education & the workforce held in December in London, UK.

“Our view is that partnering with universities in various ways is a good thing”

“I actually believe the bigger competitor to universities which are not changing in that direction, are other universities that are, as opposed to boot camps,” stated Jan Lynn-Matern, founder & CEO of Emerge Education.

Lynn-Matern, who heads up a European venture capital fund, was responding to a question about future challenges to the traditional university learning environment.

“I think they [coding boot camps, etc.] are a very significant element of the answer,” he continued. “But I don’t think they’re the biggest threat to universities, because when you buy an education, you’re buying the brand value of whatever institution you go to.

“The fact is that universities are state-protected oligopolies. It’s very difficult to create a new university and impossible to build a university that has 150-year old brand value because that takes 150 years.

“So if a few universities figure out, how to become a) scalable, and b) produce content in an agile way and actually produce real skills, I think they are the biggest threat.”

Lynn-Matern was joined on the panel by George Straschnov of Bisk Ventures in the US and Alex Spiro, partner of Brighteye Ventures also based in the UK.

Straschnov said Bisk Ventures’ investments in the last couple of years had focused on non-traditional content being delivered through a university lens, utilising best-in-class technology.

“I think whereas edtech was [once] more about a specific technology to solve a specific problem, now, as technology is being married with content in a myriad of different ways, our view is that partnering with universities in various ways to do that is a good thing,” he shared.

“So we really look for where we see those intersections, bringing that to market in ways we think would serve the need – that I think we all agree exists – in the marketplace.”

Straschnov revealed that many of the tech bootcamp businesses were looking to raise their next round of funding, and in the process, he had gained insights into what some felt they had got wrong as they developed.

“The fact is that universities are state-protected oligopolies”

“It was that they neglected a lot of the things that the liberal arts college [would provide],” he shared.

“They would say, we can teach languages really well, we can teach people to code, but we really need to teach them to be able to talk to each other and.. get them to write an email where they can communicate… we realise [they’re] talking about an English degree,” he said with a smile.

Bisk-backed Make School has partnered with a liberal arts school, also in the Bay area, he revealed, to great effect. Students on a fast-track two-year degree are “really getting the best of both worlds”, he said, with significantly cheaper fees and “a 95% placement rate“.

Investments made by Bisk Ventures include Make School and Red Academy; Brighteye Ventures has invested into tech skills bootcamp Iron Hack, while Emerge has backed The London Interdisciplinary School, a new university which offers paid work placements with internship partners that include Virgin, Innocent, Funding Circle and the Met Police.

Spiro shared that IronHack offered nine-week courses that could see participants of the course gain a 30% bump in salary, and it had an 88% placement rate.

On the same topic of employability, Dyson Institute spoke with UK universities at a UUKi event earlier this year. It revealed that this major engineering employer has also partnered with the University of Warwick to deliver degrees which offer paid employment and a guaranteed job offer if students gain a 2:1.

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