Disney's $52.4 Billion 21st Century Fox Deal and Our Higher Ed Futures

What might we think about when we think about this deal through a higher ed lens?

December 14, 2017

Disney is paying $52.4 billion in an all stock deal to acquire 21st Century Fox. For its money, Disney gets Fox’s TV and film studios and its cable networks, as well as some international TV stations and a majority ownership of Hulu. Fox News is not included in the deal.

Whenever I read about these media mega-mergers, I think about what they may tell us about our own information industry, higher education.

Mostly, very little.

We may resemble a media company in that amongst the things that we produce are experiential goods, but we don’t actually have all that much in common.

Higher education is (largely) a bundler of services related to credentialing, learning, and knowledge creation. We are a public good with diminishing public support (in every sense of the word), highly regulated and focused on the improvement of the public welfare. 

Media companies are none of these things.

If we stretch our minds, however, we may find some interesting overlap between the media and postsecondary industries.

The pressure to unbundle may be one of these similarities.

The Disney / Fox deal is largely about giving Disney the scale that it needs to compete with Netflix, Amazon and Google (YouTube) in a future streaming-based media environment.  The media world is convinced that bundled model of cable TV subscriptions will not be what tomorrow’s consumers want.  Rather, most video will be consumed as music is today. Through phones rather than stereos, and by streaming subscriptions or song-by-song downloads rather than album purchases.

In a world where nobody wants pay for either a big cable bundle or to pay with their attention by watching ads - or even go much to a movie theater - the legacy business models that media companies depend on start to look a bit shaky.

In this analogy, we (higher ed) are the old line networks and studios. We offer an expensive good that can only be consumed in the bundle of teaching, credentialing, and knowledge production.

Breaking apart credentialing, teaching, and research sounds plausible. Many institutions already unbundle teaching and credentialing from both research and the more experiential aspects of higher education. Community colleges offer classes and degrees, but much less in the way of research production, residential life, or opportunities to participate in athletics.

The challenge is that an unbundled higher education is not only less expensive (a good thing), it is less valued in the marketplace. Neither public or private sources seem willing to invest the resources necessary to ensure a sustainable or resilient unbundled postsecondary model.

Who might be a new unbundled competitor in higher education with a viable business model is not at all clear. There are small experiments like MissionU, but there numbers are so far insignificant.  Code academies and bootcamps don’t appear to be living up to their promises.  There is enthusiasm around the potential of open online education to leverage mass customization to offer a very-low cost quality unbundled credentials, but so far the attachment of credit and degrees to MOOCs has not achieved scale.

For now, it is an interesting thought experiment to ask if the higher education industry could end up in the same place as the media industry.

Will the future of mass postsecondary education, the institutions that educate and credential large numbers of students as opposed to a privileged few, be one of unbundling?

Can we think of a future where there are good enough options for learning and credentialing where students will practice the equivalent of educational cord cutting?

A decade ago the incumbent media conglomerates - the studios and the networks - would have never believed that Netflix or Amazon or YouTube would be a threat to their business model. Today, the large media companies are scrambling to get even bigger in order to control enough of the platforms and content to fend off these born-digital media upstarts.

Is there a chance that there will emerge the born-digital postsecondary player that will do to legacy universities what Netflix might do old line studios and networks?

Will universities beyond those run by charismatic presidents such as Michael Crow and Paul LeBlanc make really big bets on unproven and digital-first programs, initiatives, and degrees?

Might Disney spending $52.4 billion for 21st Century Fox ignite any relevant strategic conversations within our industry of higher education?


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