An Avalanche is Coming: Higher Education and the Revolution Ahead


This is the title of a report that was published today by the Institute for Public Policy Research, a British think tank. Sir Michael Barber, former adviser to Tony Blair, and now chief education adviser at Pearson, is its lead author.

Here is the summary and highlights from the Times Higher Education:, “‘Established’ universities could go bust, warns report:”

Established UK universities will go out of business within the next 10 years unless they adapt to survive an era of intense pressure driven by globalisation, technology, rising student expectations, and competition for funding, a report has warned. […]

“Our belief is that the models of higher education that marched triumphantly across the globe in the second half of the 20th Century require radical and urgent transformation. Our fear is that the nature of change is incremental and the pace of change too slow,” he says in the report.

In a press briefing to reporters, he added: “The ordinary one-town red brick university that just ticks over…will really suffer,” before making comparisons with the newspaper industry, saying publications that had appeared “historic and completely solid” had struggled with the shift from print to digital content.

The report calls on universities to specialise, arguing that increased competition from privately funded research and free online courses mean the “traditional university with a range of degrees and modestly effective research has had its day”.

It argues that the universities face the threat of being “unbundled” as they are forced to compete with more specialised institutions, online learning providers, and privately funded research centres.

“Some will need to specialise in teaching alone,” it says, while other might focus on building links with business, or concentrating solely on research. It identifies five types of university that might emerge in order to survive the coming challenges: the elite university; the mass university; the niche university; the local university; and the lifelong learning mechanism.

“Each university needs to be clear which niches or segments it wants to serve, and what will set its educational experience and impact apart,” the report says.

“The key messages from the report to every player in the system are that the new student consumer is king and standing still is not an option. Embracing the new opportunities … may be the only way to avoid the avalanche that is coming.”

How comparable are higher education in the UK and in the US and hence how applicable are these findings in the US context? Or isn’t this a global transformation?

I have blogged about a similar argument two months ago, focusing on the impact of MOOCs in the US.

What are the implications of this argument for institutions such as WKU and the Honors College?

I would be most curious to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.

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