A world of disruption awaits: Are all universities ready?

The pandemic has accelerated the unbundling of higher education and opened up innovative approaches for universities and technology providers to find new, more effective ways to reach learners.

Institutions that can break apart the traditional four-year bundled college experience – in which one fee pays for everything from coursework to housing, libraries and sports – and rethink a customised approach will thrive in the new paradigm.

For over a decade, traditional institutions in the United States and other developed higher education markets have faced declining enrolment and rapidly increasing costs. These shifts began to call into question the long-term viability of status quo business models, such as charging premiums for four-year degrees and depending on alumni fundraising.

In emerging markets, enrolment has generally held steadier, but even before the pandemic there were indications that the traditional four-year model was not sufficient to meet varied student and labour force needs.

For instance, enrolment in Colombian universities grew between 2010 and 2015 at an average of 8% per year. For the next three years, numbers levelled off. From 2018 to 2019 student enrolment declined from 54% to 52%, which only got worse during COVID-19.

The pandemic forced a reassessment by all higher education institutions, regardless of where they operated. Universities that had already incorporated digital learning were better able to meet demand, but even they had to make adjustments to absorb students learning under changed conditions.

Classes were conducted over the internet, students logged on from their bedrooms, and administrators had to utilise new software to collaborate. Two years into COVID, innovation around what learning should look like continues to expand.

A world of disruptive change

First, in developed and emerging markets alike, university leaders with an agile mindset have been able to take advantage of the shake-up in higher education, rather than scrambling to survive it. Being able to adapt to constantly changing market and technological conditions is the best way to meet students’ needs over the long term.

A great example of constant adaptation to change is Universidad Continental in Peru, which has developed a comprehensive competency-based education model. Key elements of the academic model include experiential learning, entrepreneurship, integration of theory and practice and digitalisation.

Secondly, university leaders have cultivated a broader skillset across their organisations that prioritises problem-solving, adaptability, creativity and empathy, which are the building blocks of sustained innovation. These flexible skills are valuable in various situations and enable us to thrive in a world of exponential change.

A prime example of flexible skills in action is from the team at Lottus Education, a large higher education platform in Mexico positioned in the affordability segment, which utilises agile methodologies to create a steady stream of innovative new products faster than before.

Third, they have utilised robust technology toolsets to deliver a richer educational experience to more students than ever. We should keep a watchful eye on techniques and technologies such as design thinking for next-generation problem-solving, augmented and virtual reality for immersive learning and advances in neuroscience to fuel better understanding when it comes to rapid skills development.

Educational institutions are also leveraging technology to forge new paths. For instance, Aliat Universidades, another Mexican higher education platform positioned in the affordability segment, has prioritised the development of a robust IT infrastructure as a key competitive advantage. They have one of the most advanced IT architectures in the Latin American region.

Adaptability leads to opportunity

Traditional universities that are unwilling to adapt will find themselves selling an old experience to a dwindling market of 17- to 22-year-old students. While the four-year degree will continue to appeal to a particular population of learners, there is a tremendous opportunity to deliver educational experiences that promote a lifetime of learning to larger groups of people.

In emerging economies in particular, lower cost and shorter educational experiences hold a lot of potential for a broad range of students. New technology solutions that emerged from the COVID disruption have made it much easier to reach more people and scale.

Educators and content providers are partnering with technology companies to innovate. We have seen the emergence of online schools, start-up colleges and even online platforms which can aggregate learners’ attention and direct it to various learning paths.

Some institutions in emerging markets are developing ‘content factories’ to standardise content production to be re-used across different brands, delivery modalities and academic programmes, catering also to the needs of working adults seeking increased flexibility and the possibility of combining work and study.

A whole industry is evolving around this. Scala Learning is an online programme manager in Mexico that provides white-labelled digitalisation services to universities across the region. Scala offers solutions to help institutions with everything from creating online class content to marketing support and training teachers to lead virtual classrooms.

A glimpse of the future

When the pandemic era ends, a return to old models may work for some institutions in some economies. What is more likely is that educational institutions that don’t start transforming now may become obsolete in the future. Hybrid models, bundling of learning content, crowdsourcing platforms and other educational shifts will continue to threaten traditional players if they don’t start to adapt.

The market dynamics between developed and emerging countries might be different, but the purpose of secondary and tertiary education is ubiquitous: to prepare as many people as possible for a world of disruptive change. That outcome will lead to citizens who are better parents, spouses and partners, workers and community members.

Gary Bolles is author of The Next Rules of Work, chair of the Future of Work at Singularity University, a partner in Charrette LLC, and co-founder of Alejandro Caballero is principal education specialist at the International Finance Corporation, the private sector arm of the World Bank.