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Degrees of freedom: the forces shaping universities’ future

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In the digital age, engagement with advanced knowledge increasingly happens outside the formal higher education system. Alternatives to traditional educational models, particularly web-based ones, have put users in control of their learning. These alternatives have also helped new providers to enter what is becoming a highly competitive market for learning-related services.

Understanding the opportunities for universities

Universities need to understand the forces reshaping the global landscape if they are to turn these changes into opportunities, rather than (as some have predicted) the source of their eventual demise.

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These forces can best be understood under the following four headings.

Diverging domains of purposeful learning 

Paying clients, whether government agencies, students or businesses, expect the services offered by universities (and their competitors) to be relevant to their needs. Purposeful learning can be grouped into three domains:

  • Discovery – extending knowledge and creating new insights in particular  disciplines or fields

  • Solutions – developing and helping to implement, practical solutions to complex business or social needs

  • Practice – applying best professional practices and competences across the whole range of business, professional and public services

These three domains each represent fundamentally different businesses, and universities will have to make strategic choices about where they will compete.

The next wave of globalisation

True globalisation, going beyond current levels of internationalisation, will be driven by developments in the worldwide market for learning: first, clients’ wish and ability to use the best available providers regardless of location, and second, the emergence of global organisations and networks as major players across borderless markets.

Universities must engage with this global economy of learning, growing their international recruitment, research capabilities and partnerships, and establishing themselves as global businesses.

Explosion of the learning value chain

The value chain is the set of processes and activities that deliver services and benefits to customers. Traditionally universities provided virtually all elements of the learning value chain in-house, but recently every element has been opened to alternative modes of delivery, e.g. the use of open educational resource (OER) materials.

Opportunities here include becoming a ‘learning chain integrator’, drawing together inputs from different providers; supplying particular elements of the value chain, such as learning materials or awards; or facilitating new DIY models of higher education.

Blurring of the public-private divide

The sharp reduction in public grant funding and the increasingly collaborative delivery of learning have helped to establish higher education as a customer-funded market served by a range of independent enterprises.
The resultant blurring of distinctions between public and private provision poses new dilemmas for traditional ‘public’ universities. The best way to balance commercial imperatives with traditional university values may be to conceive modern universities as social enterprises.

Preparing to lead a new world of learning

These four forces are opening up a dynamic, expanding economy of purposeful learning.

Every university should examine the implications and opportunities, asking ‘“What business(es) will we be in five,10 and 20 years from now?’ 

To find out more about the forces shaping universities’ future and how to turn them to your organisation’s advantage, please contact us now.

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