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How can we find the opportunities amid the disruption?

Ant Bagshaw looks ahead to how universities can best prepare for changes in the sector
This article is more than 1 year old

Ant Bagshaw is a Senior Advisor in L.E.K. Consulting’s Global Education Practice and co-editor, with Debbie McVitty, of Influencing Higher Education Policy

What will a truly innovative university look like in five years? We should anticipate significant disruption to the status quo in the sector.

If we look back over the past five years, we can see significant disruptive forces changing and shaping the sector. And the five years before that would show even greater changes to the regulatory environment, funding, student behaviour, and technologies.

It’s not that all disruption comes in the form of new market entrants looking to displace universities wholesale. For all the Jo Johnson-era reforms, we have seen few new entrants radically reshape higher education provision.

Disruption in higher education is more like climate change – a gradual rising of the temperature before we reach a tipping point that feels, in retrospect, inevitable.

OES brought together leaders from a range of HE providers and membership organisations to explore what’s happening and to look ahead to what might be done in response to disruption in education.

Valuable discussion

As a starting point, we thought through where value is created now, and attempted to identify where value might be redistributed in future.

We tried not to be doomful, as some of these exercises can be: again, not all threats to the present system mean that universities will lose out or be undone by more agile competitors.

But it is useful to look for how value is changing in the system to determine what, if anything, an institution should do about it.

We found three examples that prompt thinking on value creation in education:

1. Certificating learning remains vital but the university’s role is changing

A key part of what is special about universities is their ability to award degrees with the expectation that those documents provide a lasting and material benefit to the recipient.

But the confidence in credentials – whether they reasonably represent a benchmarked level of achievement – may be threatened by accusations of “unmerited grade inflation” and by professional bodies or regulators questioning whether universities provide the assurance needed to authenticate performance for entry to some professions.

In this context, institutions need to consider how they can best serve learners’ needs – for example, reimagining collaboration with professional bodies to bolster confidence in credentials.

There also may be new ways of providing assurance of an individual’s capability through targeted assessments when applying for a job, a task universities could be well-equipped to facilitate.

2. Flexibility through technology is disrupting how we engage with all aspects of the university

The pandemic focused minds on how teaching and learning activities can be delivered using existing and new technologies. The future should enable much more flexibility in how education institutions operate across the board, including better virtual access for recruitment and admissions, perhaps including moving away from the big event in-person open day.

Technologies also can enable flexibility for students to study when and how it suits them best – though providers are also currently under pressure from ministers and sections of the media to maximise face-to-face activity.

For some providers, this disruption to the value represented by the physical campus’ amenities may mean a greater focus on the rich value in the content and delivery of education.

At OES, we’ve seen many institutions redouble efforts to ensure that online learning environments meet students’ needs now, and that they’re adaptable for evolving needs and future technologies.

3. Building lifelong learning starts with existing students

Value creation through education in universities has traditionally followed a sequential model with the student at the end of that chain. Connecting the chain to make a cycle can make for a stronger integration of learners’ experiences, and the realities they face in work, into the design and development of curricula.

Seeing a student exit from the institution with their certificate is not the end of the process: universities can learn from graduates how to improve the value to future cohorts.

Institutions can also better offer their alumni upskilling opportunities to support their career development. The relationship between universities and their former students can enable lifelong learning required for the rapidly changing labour market.

What’s the answer?

In response to my opening question about the innovative university, I would make the case for a next-level learning organisation which has – and uses daily – experimental capabilities to improve everything from staff and student experience to resource allocation, to marketing and recruitment, to graduate outcomes, to use of space.

This self-optimising university uses the data from the myriad on-campus and online sources to find patterns, test hypotheses, and track impact. And it does it with effective systems integration, a strong ethical oversight, and robust data security.

This sort of university will cope best with the disruption that is upon us and that which is yet to come.

For the OES disruption report, we found that you don’t need to look to far-flung futures to generate ideas, nor only to consider an incremental change from where we are now.

If you’re interested in learning more about the features of disruption for the sector, take a look at the report, and let us know what you think.

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