Universities of the Future: A Report

An Ernst & Young report looks at the Australian universities and come to interesting conclusions. The British universities, which look at their Australian counterparts with envy these days, may take note of this: The report offers some insights which may have universal significance, and universities all over the world, barring the few at the top of the pyramid, may have to reassess their strategies in the rapidly changing context of today's Higher Education.

In summary, the report points to five disruptive forces that confront what it calls a 'thousand year old industry' (though many in Britain will be affronted by the 'i' word):

First, 'democratization of knowledge and access', which means not just the MOOCs, but more fundamentally, Google, and YouTube, and the like; as well as the expansion of Higher Education systems in the developing world, based on the emerging consensus on Higher Education as the key to good life.

Second, 'contestability of markets and funding', which points to the increasingly intense competition at home (in Australia but equally true for the UK) for funding as well as for students in the global market.

Third, 'Digital Technologies' and the possibilities they create, which go beyond online learning, and enters the other realms such as recruitment, student services and partnerships.

Fourth, 'Global Mobility' of academics, researchers, students and funding, which creates a huge disruption for the nationally grounded models of higher education.

And, finally, 'integration with industry', which, in modern universities, reaching a proportion parallel to the closeness the institutions had with religious bodies before the secular universities came along (read Ken Auletta's take on Stanford's closeness with silicon valley), raises new questions about academic work and life.

The broad conclusion of the report is indeed that the public university model, as it is now, will prove unviable in all but a few cases in the next 10 to 15 years. Though this is kind of obvious, yet such a conclusion would be met with as much derision as Peter Drucker's infamous prophecy,  "universities won't survive", made in 1997, when he talked about big university campuses being relics 'thirty years from now'. The uncanny coincidence of timelines may indeed raise the suspicion that the researchers of the latest report is merely adding substance to Drucker's statement, but the university leaders and policy makers will do well to look closely at the predictions made here.

The E&Y report sees three possible evolutionary outcomes for the universities in the next two decades, which they call 'streamlined status quo', 'niche dominators' and 'transformers'. Indeed, most of it is happening already. The 'streamlined status quo' model, where digital and partnerships play a bigger role in recruitment and delivery, is the most favoured, understandably, and a reading of most university strategic plans reflect that unequivocally. Almost everyone agrees that things can't remain as they are (indeed, the E&Y report drew on the observations of university leaders) and the digitally enabled collaborative future is widely accepted as the way to go.

'Niche Dominators', where the report focuses on institutions which focus on a few subject and activity areas, rather than trying to build a broad all-purpose community as in the modern public universities, is also a popular model already. Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring highlighted the approach of Bingham Young University in Idaho, in contrast to the model followed by universities such as Harvard, as the way to go for modern universities in their The Innovative University. Whether or not this happens in Australia in the next 15 years, the bottom half of the British universities are already in the middle of an existential crisis, squeezed between a savage cut in public funding and a cavalier change in student visa norms that cut Britain out of global competition for international students, and with little choice but to follow this model. Indeed, this will need courage and wading through the teachers' unions etc, but reading through the strategic plans, the seeds of change have been sown. 

The 'Transformers', however, will remain a highly contested category, since this is to be dominated by private investment. Profit-making in education remains politically toxic, even in countries like America where business is all-pervasive and corporations are allowed to run every other function in life, including national security. So far, most countries allow Private Not-for-Profit but not their For-Profit cousins, which restrict, more often than not, the flow of capital in education. This is going to change, as is obvious from the current policy rhetoric (despite the persistent scandals in America) and the imperatives of choice, markets and expanding access. The report sees these private players to be niche and dynamic, innovating on technologies not just of delivery but of recruitment, student services and engagement, being in close collaboration with the industry. 

Indeed, despite its grim pre-supposition, the report is optimistic. It maps out an evolution of higher education in step with the changing time, and predicts that politics won't get in the way. It assumes the emergence of a responsible and responsive private sector complement, despite the current scepticism about the role of the private providers. There are bold predictions about the nature of subjects and disciplines on offer, and the optimism that markets will impose a sort of interdisciplinary cohesion not usual in the academia. In conclusion, this optimism about change would itself be the biggest change in the universities, which, despite its unprecedented current popularity, is facing the pressures of disruption as acutely as ever.


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