Girl checking global education information on her laptop.

The third part in this special about the future of our universities deals with how they can deal with the competition in question, and evolve and transform. This competition includes not just traditional rivals, but entirely new kinds of competitors. Initially, the new competition was due to globalisation, with universities competing for international students and international research funding. A more recent competitor is technology, which threatens not just the university as a whole, but at the level of each individual component, such as course structure, and research.

Research in universities is continuing to be important, and will remain a key output of universities, with costly investment needed in science and medicine. Universities are sharing this cost through international partnerships, rather than single university research. Furthermore other players in the research field are gaining influence and delivering results more cost effectively, such as trusts like the Wellcome, the LHC run by the European Organisation for Nuclear Research and large businesses with major research programmes like Pfizer. For social sciences, competition outside the university come from think-tanks, and consultancy firms, which may have partnerships with universities. More and more research funding is going to fewer and fewer institutions, with 80% of research funding in the UK going to just 25 universities. Therefore, for leading universities with a good track record, successful academics and departments in key fields, and a strong brand, there is more opportunity than threat ahead. At the same time, more modest universities have to ask themselves whether they should be prioritising research, or whether they should focus on something else, like teaching. 

The awarding of degrees is probably the most fundamental role of a university, however it is also increasingly open to challenges. Private competition comes from companies such as Pearson, which is seeking to provide its own degrees. There is also an increasing acceptance of non-degree credentials which don’t rely on traditional universities. One example of this is the Financial Times education programme for non-executive directors which offers better networking and a stronger brand name, but is specific to the role. A degree might also not be necessary in the future; in the past five years, incubator and accelerator programmes have become prominent enough to gain formal rankings. Some of the best are considered to have brand values similar to an Ivy league business school, and come with funding to start a company, intense mentorship, and a substantial network. After a degree from a top university, getting a job with a world leading company is important as they are great places to learn transferable skills, and can provide mentorship and networks. On top of this are professional social networks, such as LinkedIn, where individuals can create their profile of actual skills and experience, rather than using their degree to provide this evidence.

With regards to the faculty, it used to be that faculty members had to live near campus, however with technology the faculty, in the same way as the students, can live anywhere, teaching online or via video conferencing. Additionally, the university is increasingly involving other experts, such as business people, film producers, and civil servants, in their teaching. For example, the Mile End Group’s course ‘New Labour in Power, 1997-2000’ (as part of the Contemporary History programme at Queen Mary, London) have had their meetings attended by leading figures of the New Labour governments, including Blair. Here these figures can reflect on their success and failures, inspiration and mistakes in a relaxed environment. All the seminars are filmed and each new class of students can access these contributions, therefore giving them access to additional, tailored content. 

Traditionally students have needed to be in the same place as the faculty to facilitate the transfer of knowledge, and to foster debate and discussion within the class. However, nowadays, as the faculty can be anywhere in the world, so can the students. The rise of new technologies such as virtual and augmented reality is making it easier and easier to stimulate in-person experiences at distance. This technology, along with ubiquitous content and instant multiple channels of communication, will be able to deliver the experience of rich interactions in a classroom with one’s peers regardless of location.

The curriculum of a university is increasingly becoming a commodity. MOOCS have opened up access to tried and tested curricula for anyone in the world to use. There are also online learning equivalents that are less open - universities that offer courses through an online platform. Platforms like this work at an institutional level and could offer the best chance for some traditional universities to continue, but that will depend, among other things, on their ability to reduce costs and pass the savings along to the student in the form of reduced fees. There are also models which disrupt the belief that universities have the monopoly on developing the curriculum and professors on teaching a course. LearnRev, a British start-up, provides online courses focused on work-relevant skills such as running a meeting, financial modeling, or negotiating. The idea here is that learning practice rather than theory is what is needed to be successful in the workplace today, and that the brand name of a leading corporation can be more relevant than that of a leading university.

With world-class content available anytime for free, the ability of faculty to be present anywhere, and the rise of online learning as an alternative to in-person instruction, we need to reflect on the nature of teaching and learning in a higher education institution. Learning no longer needs to follow the traditional model of lectures followed by homework, followed by assessment. Another implication is that learning does not have to follow the traditional model of a series of interactions spread across the course of a semester. Students today need skills that can be applied in the real world tomorrow. Innovative start-ups are now emerging to provide these relevant world skills where universities are either too slow or too expensive to compete. These emerging forums potentially provide a much more efficient market for teaching and learning than the university ecosystem - and for many people this might be the best way to improve their lives through learning. Traditionally, universities have hovered between end-of-course formal exams and either modular assessment or dissertations, or some combination of the three. Meanwhile, in the real world, technology can have a transformational impact. The University of Winconsin recently announced a degree that can be achieved on the basis of neither seat time nor credits, but simply by demonstrating competence in a series of tests that can be done online and at home. There is no reason why these kinds of assessments need to be set or marked by, or even take place in, universities. It is perfectly plausible for specialists in assessment to take on these roles, whether developed by assessment companies, such as Pearson, at proven assessment centres. Particularly as the labour market becomes globalised, students will want to be sure that their qualification is globally recognised, and while well-known universities can guarantee such recognition, the less well-known brands might prefer to depend on a global brand. We do the same for GMATs etc. With the right quality assurance mechanisms in place, such assessments could not only substitute formalised assessment, but prove to be more effective by contributing to further learning and sharing of perspectives.

Increasingly the experience of a university education can also be provided elsewhere as meet-ups, youth clubs and learning communities develop. E(nstitute) is a New York based start-up that helps provide an alternative experience with ‘fellows’ placed at an early stage company for two years. The fellows have access to a mentor pool, panel discussion, guest speaker dinners and readings. The community are treated as a cohort and live in shared townhouses community buildings. However, in this area, the traditional university still has much going for it compared to competitors. Thus the provision of these experiences, for those students who want them, will remain a source of competitive advantage for some universities.

Top photo by Cool Walls Image ID: 3003417.