A higher education avalanche is coming, says new report

Higher education requires “deep, radical and urgent transformation”, says a just-published report from the UK’s Institute for Public Policy Research. A new phase of competitive intensity is emerging, technology is changing and the traditional university is under pressure from, among others, private providers and MOOCs.

In the report, An Avalanche is Coming: Higher education and the revolution ahead, authors* Sir Michael Barber, Katelyn Donnelly and Saad Rizvi write that last century’s models of higher education are broken.

“The next 50 years could see a golden age for higher education, but only if all the players in the system, from students to governments, seize the initiative and act ambitiously. If not, an avalanche of change will sweep the system away.”

The report sets out challenges ahead, writes Lawrence Summers, president emeritus of Harvard University, in the foreword. “Just as we’ve seen the forces of technology and globalisation transform sectors such as media and communications or banking and finance over the last two decades, these forces may now transform higher education.

“The solid classical buildings of great universities may look permanent but the storms of change now threaten them.”

Competition between universities has been intensifying for decades, but the authors argue that “a new phase of competitive intensity is emerging as the concept of the traditional university itself comes under pressure and the various functions it serves are unbundled and increasingly supplied, perhaps better, by providers that are not universities at all”.

Think-tanks conduct research, private providers offer degrees and massive open online courses (MOOCs) are taking the best instructors global. Quality higher education is being taken to the masses, Summers points out.

“The fundamental question in An Avalanche is Coming is whether a university education is a good preparation for working life and citizenship in the 21st century or, more precisely, whether it will continue to be seen as good value, given the remorseless rise in the cost of a university education over recent decades.”

Given youth unemployment, this question for students is immediate. For policy-makers, there are challenges such as how to promote meritocracy, how to regulate an increasingly global sector, how to ensure that universities fuel innovation and growth, and how to break the “rigid link” between cost and quality.

For university leaders, the questions are even more profound, writes Summers. He urges university leaders around the world to study Michael Barber’s argument about unbundling.

“Potential unbundling is certainly a threat, but those who rebundle well will find they have reinvented higher education for the 21st century.”

Barber, Donnelly and Rizvi argue for radical transformation of higher education. “Our fear is that, perhaps as a result of complacency, caution or anxiety, or a combination of all three, the pace of change is too slow and the nature of change too incremental.

“Given the state of the global economy, tensions in international relations, massive gaps between wealth and poverty, the deepening threat of climate change and the ubiquity of weapons of mass destruction, our contention is that we need a generation better educated, in the broadest and most profound sense of that word, than ever before.”

The authors say there is no certainty over what the way forward is – there is no single way forward – but doing nothing would be a classic error of strategy.

“What we will probably see is a diverse range of experiments, some of which will work and some of which won’t.” The central message to university leaders and policy-makers is to “ponder anew”.

University leaders need to take control of their destiny and seize opportunities open to them through technology – 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, write Barber, Donnelly and Rizvi. Some will need to specialise in teaching and move away from the traditional lecture to the multi-faced teaching possibilities now available.

The pressure of competition between universities and from the ‘outside’ is greater than ever, because a range of new players – such as MOOCs-provider Coursera, skill-educating companies and consultancies that develop people and produce research – are competing with various functions of the traditional university.

Governments need to rethink regulatory regimes that were designed for national university systems, and to face big questions such as how to fund or support part-time and online students, how to incentivise the connection between universities, cities and innovation, and how to ensure that their universities thrive.

The report highlights three fundamental challenges facing systems around the world:
  • • How can universities and new providers ensure education for employability? “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.”
  • • How can the link between cost and quality be broken? Global rankings in effect equate inputs with output. Only universities with vast research capacity and low student-to-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.” A new university ranking is required.
  • • 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 emphasises learning by practice and mentorship. Systematic changes are necessary to embedding these successful companies on a wider scale.”

    The key messages to all players in the system, the authors write, are that “the new student consumer is king and standing still is not an option”.

    They conclude that the combination of marketisation – the student consumer as king – and globalisation will lead to universities being less and less contained within national systems, and both benchmarked globally and a leading part of the growth of knowledge economics – collaborating and competing.

    “In the new world the learner will be in the driver’s seat, with a keen eye trained on value. For institutions, deciding to embrace this new world may turn out to be the only way to avoid the avalanche that is coming.

    “Just as an avalanche shapes the mountain, so the changes ahead will fundamentally alter the landscape for universities.”

    * Sir Michael Barber is chief education advisor to Pearson, and he advises governments and development agencies on education strategy, effective governance and delivery. He is a visiting professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow and author of numerous books. Katelyn Donnelly is an executive director at Pearson, where she leads the Affordable Learning Fund, and is an advisor on global strategy, research and innovation. Saad Rizvi is Pearson’s executive director of efficacy and has advised education systems around the world on delivery, reform and systemic innovation.