An avalanche is coming: Higher education and the revolution ahead

An essay by the by the Institute of Public Policy Research, a progressive UK  thinktank was published today, which aims to provoke creative dialogue and challenge complacency in HE institutions about the future of higher education.


From the executive summary:

“This report challenges every player in the system to act boldly.

Citizens need to seize the opportunity to learn and re-learn throughout their lives. They need to be ready to take personal responsibility both for themselves and the world around them. Every citizen is a potential student and a potential creator of employment.

University leaders need to take control of their own destiny and seize the opportunities open to them through technology – Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) for example – to provide broader, deeper and more exciting education. Leaders will need to have a keen eye toward creating value for their students.

Each university needs to be clear which niches or market segments it wants to serve and how. The traditional multipurpose university with a combination of a range of degrees and a modestly effective research programme has had its day.

The traditional university is being unbundled.

Some will need to specialise in teaching alone – and move away from the traditional lecture to the multi-faced teaching possibilities now available:

•the elite university

•the mass university

•the niche university

•the local university

•the lifelong learning mechanism.”


There are three fundamental challenges facing systems all round the world:

1. How can universities and new providers ensure education for employability?

A great example of the future is the excellent employability centre at Exeter University in the UK which offers all students sustained advice and promotes volunteering as well as academic success. Given the rising cost of degrees, the threat to the market value of degrees and the sheer scale of both economic change and unemployment, this is a vital and immediate challenge.

2. How can the link between cost and quality be broken?

At present, the global rankings of universities in effect equate inputs with output. Only universities which have built up vast research capacity and low student:teacher ratios can come out on top. Yet in the era of modern technology, when students can individually and collectively create knowledge themselves, outstanding quality without high fixed costs is both plausible and desirable. New entrants are effectively barred from entry. A new university ranking is required.

3. How does the entire learning ecosystem need to change to support alternative providers and the future of work?

A new breed of learning providers is emerging that emphasise learning by practice and mentorship. Systematic changes are necessary to embedding these successful companies on a wider scale.

The key messages from the report to every player in the system are that the new student consumer is king and standing still is not an option. Embracing the new opportunities set out here may be the only way to avoid the avalanche that is coming”

As with so many reports of this nature, it will contain the usual amount of hyperbole, but the authors make it clear that they don;t have all the answers – they are just identifying many of the questions and possible options and ideas for institutions.

The idea that ” traditional multipurpose university with a combination of a range of degrees and a modestly effective research programme has had its day” resonates – for this and other universities to succeed n future, we will need to much more clearly identify and articulate what it is we do that is different, and why learners should come to us.

A critical reading of the paper is published by David Kernohan, on his blog. Many of the issues that David raises, particularly in regard to the authors being from Pearson, and therefore possibly having a vested interest, are worth taking on board.

Further comments on the paper can be found on the blog of Ferdinand von Prondzynski, the principal of Robert Gordon University. He writes:

“The essay does have a number of interesting insights, and is worth reading. But its five ‘models’ are not revolutionary – they (or something like them) are long in place, and it is not difficult to attach a model number to almost any existing university you might care to mention. The problem is that, as listed, they express a hierarchy, and indeed a hierarchy both of esteem and of resourcing. The trick in establishing a new higher education model that is not Harvard-like but is recognised as representing strong value and educational quality is to show it as exercising thought leadership. That is the essence of a different new university model.

Unlike the authors of this report, I don’t think there is an avalanche coming that is materially different from past changes, in the sense that fairly significant change has been a feature of higher education for the past four decades or more. I also suspect that some of the current ‘radical’ moves, including many of the MOOCs (a name that increasingly irritates me), will eventually flop because they lack a business case and because the pedagogy has not been as well thought out as some may think. But I do believe that there is scope for a radical new university model that can challenge the traditional elite. That is the quest I would like to be on.”


It is also noteworthy the number of times that Thomas Friedman  – famous for the golden arches theory of conflict prevention – is referenced in the essay, an interesting choice of writer to be used by a left leaning thinktank.