Could a university ever adopt the Google business model and offer tuition for free?
This may seem an ever-more-unlikely prospect as governments the world over struggle to finance the growing demand for higher education -- often levying tuition fees to plug the gap. But the president of Austral University, a private institution in Argentina, believes that universities could be on the cusp of a "breakthrough" in how they finance student education.
In an interview with Times Higher Education, Fernando Fragueiro outlined the all-powerful Internet company's business model: It offers its services to consumers for free, thus generating enormous amounts of user traffic for its services. It then makes money by selling advertising space to companies, which can target specific groups of Google users based on their searches or the content of their emails.
Universities could do something similar, he proposed. Companies could pay to advertise their physical products (laptops, for example) and services to students during their course of study, helping to eliminate the need for fees, he explained. Companies hunting for new talent could also pay the university for detailed information on how its students were progressing, Fragueiro continued, allowing them to pick out the class genius, for example.
This kind of on-campus headhunting was already happening in the IT industry, where there was such demand for talented people that students would often drop out of their courses halfway through to join the companies, he added. "Talent is really the asset they are looking for," he argued, and universities "offer services to very highly talented people" and so were well-placed to support corporations in their search.
This proposal may sound like a radical commercialization of the lecture theater, but it stems from Fragueiro's view that education must not be off-limits to those who are unable to afford it. "Education is a human right, not a privilege for a small number of people," he said.
If universities were able to adopt the same model as Google, they would be capable of attracting the best people without any kind of financial discrimination -- "and no fees," he added. "The private sector needs to find ways to sustain itself," he argued, meaning that corporations had a strong incentive to fund the education of potential employees.
Universities had been run with a mixture of government money and student fees for centuries, Fragueiro argued, but this business model was "almost finished."
There are signs in Britain that companies are willing to fund students through payments to universities. For example, KPMG, one of the "big four" auditors, pays the tuition and accommodation costs of trainees while they study at the Universities of Durham, Birmingham or Exeter. The recipients go on to work for the firm after graduation.
Fragueiro insisted that under his model, students would not be compelled to work for particular companies after completing their degrees. However, he did not outline immediate plans to roll out his ideas at Austral.