The Guild System is Dead! Long Live the Guild System!
Koru. Work America. Iron Yard. Flatiron School. Starter League. General Assembly. Each of these new entrants to the education landscape have, despite short histories, demonstrated early success, some of them at significant scale. Indeed some of their earlier coding focused peers like Dev Bootcamp have already grown and attracted the interest of larger parties (acquired by Kaplan in June 2014). Each of these companies provides either education-to-work transition programs or training principally geared to college graduates.
As someone who works and invests in education, I’ve pondered if the emergence of these new schools represent a) a significant shift in the landscape with new players growing rapidly at the expense of universities or b) a passing fad for which a hype cycle has emerged or c) some combination of both.
I have always believed in looking to the past when trying to analyze the present and for this reason, a brief history of the origins of universities is worthwhile. Nearly a thousand years ago, the learned few (think theologians) had skills they wanted to ensure were transferable across geographies and that only individuals who worked through similar (ostensibly rigorous) courses of study would receive recognition. In order to facilitate this they created universities – the graduates of which were ‘in the club’ and as a result others should accord them respect and allow them to work in alternate territories. Those without credentials could be decried as inept (at best) or charlatans (and likely worse). These qualities – having to expend time under the tutelage of an elder in order to be recognized by others in the group as a practitioner – are direct ties to the earliest guilds.
As an aside, the rules of law that university students were accountable to were not the local or national, but Ecclesiastical – which did not render corporal punishment. The students at these early universities, far from home and consequence, took full advantage and were known to neglect their studies and drink to excess, fornicate and gamble – the forerunner to today’s “raging kegger” (and all thanks to the papacy).
Fast forward to today and the general thrust of these original guilds still endure – graduates are given respect and accord for having persisted through a course of study. Employers look upon the successful completion of a degree as a signaling device that carries weight.
However, the emergence and success of new skills players such as Koru, Work America and General Assembly has spurred a question – why have these players emerged and why now? The answer is simple – over time many universities have drifted away from their earliest origins as vehicles to demonstrate mastery of a subject for purposes of employment and mobility. In this way, one of the fundamental tenets of the old guild system has broken down.
Indeed, back in the old country, the guild system never really disappeared. Indeed, City & Guilds stands today as an over 125 year old, Royal Charter backed skills focused qualifications and apprenticeship organization throughout the UK and Commonwealth.
This is not to say that all universities and colleges do a poor job or are not market oriented – in fact many do an outstanding job and have close ties to employers and their needs. However the emergence of these players represents a shot across the bow of the value propositions for many of the incumbents in the landscape. Some individuals have seen these changes and have quickly come to the conclusion that the demise of higher education is near – nothing could be farther from the truth. While I fully expect (and support) these new players to thrive in the landscape however over time, universities will slowly (potentially measured in decades) fill in the gaps to better meet the needs of students.
Editors Note: This guest post is written by Niraj Kaji, who has worked for over a decade in Higher Education, including at Bridgepoint Education, Walden University and Laureate Education as well as an entrepreneur in founding four start-ups. All points presented represent the personal views of the author and in no way reflect the opinions of his current or past employers.