Higher education is facing unprecedented levels of change – MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) providing remote access, new providers developing new approaches, students’ expectations and demands rising. These changes will increase competition and require radical innovation from existing organisations in order to survive.

What is changing?

Some of the main changes include:

  • online developments underpinned by ‘smarter’ technology thanks to developments in artificial intelligence, which change what an academic does in the teaching role,
  • continued cuts to government funding and decreasing support for higher education, putting pressure on return on investment,
  • students facing ever higher levels of debt as well as a poor employment prospects and slow growth economies,
  • increased competition globally and within national boundaries, as new providers provide a more ‘consumer oriented’ approach to provision,
  • the strengthening trend towards openness in content creation and sharing,  including open access research journals and peer review processes,
  • new ideas about teaching such as the flipped classroom which enable teachers to shared live recordings of lessons or lectures,
  • new ideas about what constitutes expertise, and just who is an expert are emerging – no longer do academics have a monopoly on expertise, and
  • new ways of working and managing universities that allow them to be nimble enough to respond quickly to these changes.

It is the last one on the list that will probably be the hardest to achieve. Why? Because it means unlearning all that we understand a university to be, and designing new forms and ways of working that match the new external environment that is emerging. The values that many working in universities today hold dear will not have to be dispensed with however, but they will need to be revisited in the light of the new context in which universities find themselves today. Reinterpreting academic freedom, autonomy and tenure in the light of and open world could hold many threats, but equally, many, many opportunities. The new forms of online learning such as MOOCs don’t add up to a qualification as we understand it today, and there’s no evidence yet that a package of digital courses will be accepted by employers as evidence of competency and skill attainment. Yet, the speed at which these new learning delivery mechanisms have hit mainstream in 2012 (albeit after many years of gestation) suggests that they are here to stay.

Why is this important?

Universities have long been able to adapt to their external environments without having to change their basic structures and ways of working. The shifts they now face are challenging the very idea of a university that has allowed these institutions to sustain themselves over hundreds of years.

Major changes will be needed across all areas, including:

  • ramping up technological infrastructure to be able to meet the expectations of the next generation of students,
  • accelerating the shift from academic driven learning to personalised and more flexible forms of learning – not a new concept but one that is becoming a reality among new providers and which money aware/ const conscious students increasingly expect,
  • building new staff skills and capacities to enable radical innovation,
  • maintaining an even stronger focus on what really matters for the future,
  • designing new organisational structures that remove the silos that now keep people and knowledge apart in universities,

and most importantly,

  • creating new roles for academic staff to ensure they stay at the centre of the whatever new ways of learning eventually emerge from this transition.

This combination of change is not the incremental change universities have become adept at over the years. In order to adapt, universities will need to innovate and challenge their own and our current perceptions of what a university is and what it does.

University leaders who understand the depth of these changes and their interdependencies, and take action today will be ahead of the game. Those who wait will most likely see their institutions go the way of companies like Kodak and Nokia who, despite being leaders in their markets, missed opportunities to take advantage of emerging change.

By Maree Conway

About the author

Maree Conway is an associate of Shaping Tomorrow who also runs her own strategic foresight practice, Thinking Futures, which helps people to think long term, to move beyond business-as-usual thinking, and to build robust, sustainable strategies for the future. She uses a combination of desk and original research plus workshops to challenge their current thinking and see beyond the constraints of today. With Shaping Tomorrow she runs a series of educational futures ‘webinars’ on using various futures tools and techniques, provides ongoing Horizon Scanning on a range of topics, and specific research support for projects such as a ‘Issues affecting long-term animal health management’. In 2008 she conducted a yearlong review of ‘the state of futures’, and previously spent 30 years in the university sector providing strategic support.