We live in paranoid times, not least in the world of higher education (HE). Universities are feeling increasingly beleaguered in an environment that has turned from offering benign support to making price-conscious demands. Public policy and funding for universities is now dominated by “something-for-something” expectations of social and economic impacts. Students, employers and businesses expect to be treated as valued clients and are increasingly able and willing to take their custom elsewhere.
Like Alice, university leaders and staff are feeling as though they have stepped through a looking glass into a bewildering world where nothing is as it used to be. Like Alice’s encounter with the Red Queen, they find themselves running as fast as they can simply to stay in the same place, economically and as institutions. Yet the outlook for universities in this looking-glass world need not be doomed to ever-increased efforts for ever-diminishing returns. The solutions are in universities’ own hands.
Across the sector (and outside it) we are starting to see new models of learning, research and knowledge-sharing that challenge old precepts. These include:
■ Learning Hotels – bringing together academics and practitioners from diverse disciplines to work together on practical needs or complex challenges.
■ On-demand models of study – giving students freedom to design their own pathways through structured learning, pausing and accelerating at different stages and studying in ways which best suit them.
■Hybrid and flexible career paths – enabling academic staff to combine teaching and research with professional practice and bringing practitioners into the university community.
■Umbrella organisation models – bringing together a range of specialist providers for different elements of the HE service chain, offering more choice and flexibility than individual providers can sustain.
The successful universities in the looking-glass world of 21st century HE will be those able to rethink the anachronistic ideas that constrain innovation, while retaining what is special and unique about the idea of a university. The change won’t be easy or comfortable, but the alternatives are far worse.
Mike Boxall is a higher education specialist at PA Consulting Group.