Imagining the future and higher education’s role in it

I’ve been thinking (and writing) a lot about innovation in higher education lately as the news for many colleges and universities continues to be about 'challenges ahead'.

For many it’s not a pleasant picture: rising costs, low graduation rates, student-employer skills mismatches, a difficult financial model and the increasing pursuit of new revenue streams.

Colleges and universities are responding in a variety of ways, including adding new degrees, entering the continuing education market, commercialising research and adding student athletic or recreation centres.

Sadly, many colleges have already closed or merged and more consolidation in the higher education market is likely in the future.

In 2013, Harvard’s Clay Christensen put it this way: “I think higher education is just on the edge of the crevasse. Generally, universities are doing very well financially, so they don’t feel from the data that their world is going to collapse. But I think even five years from now these enterprises are going to be in real trouble."

I recently had the opportunity to work with a Fortune 500 Silicon Valley company that has been very successful over the years, but knows that the future of IT will be quite different from the present and that this makes it necessary for the company to innovate, to create the future, so they will have a position in that future.

Working with the company and a large handful of their top clients, my colleague and I ran an innovation session for them, looking to imagine the clients’ businesses in the future and understand ongoing and anticipated customer ‘pain points’ that R&D can begin to innovate to address. I wonder to what extent colleges and universities are doing this?

Innovation plans

Many, if not most, colleges and universities create strategic plans, but I wonder how many of them do innovation plans, or plan for how they want to be – and, increasingly, need to be – in the future.

Not an operational plan designed to 'take the institution to the next level' or do what they do, only better, or even 'do more with less', but one that highlights how they see the future of higher education and the institution’s place in that future. Beyond wishful thinking, that is.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT, did this a while back with their Final Report on the Future of MIT Education, and Stanford’s design school did an interesting project or thought experiment in coming up with Stanford 2025, or how the undergraduate experience at Stanford might be reinvented. They’re looking ahead to create the future of higher education, rather than waiting for it to happen to them.

Margaret Andrews is an academic leader, instructor, and consultant. Academic leadership positions have included vice provost at Hult International Business School, where she managed a global academic team across five campuses in four countries, associate dean of management programs at Harvard University’s Division of Continuing Education, and executive director of the MBA Program at the MIT Sloan School of Management, USA. She teaches a variety of leadership, creativity and strategy courses at Harvard and is also the managing director of Mind and Hand Associates, a boutique consulting firm serving a global higher education clientele. You can reach her at