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Which universities will be thriving in 20 years time?

"We do not know which of today's universities will still be thriving in 10 or 20 years' time. But we can predict that those who respond imaginatively and bravely will have better prospects."



Mike Boxall

Guardian: Higher Education Network

31 October 2011


PA Consulting Group's Mike Boxall explores why some universities will emerge thriving from the current turmoil and reform, while others will lose out.

Which universities will emerge as the winners and the losers from all the turmoil in higher education policy and funding? How many institutions will disappear, and what will happen to those in the "squeezed middle"?

Questions like this are quick to arise whenever two or three HE wonks are gathered together, although no-one has any answers to them. In the short-term, the mood music of the UK higher education sector is quietly sanguine, as a PA Consulting Group recent survey of HE leaders showed. Nevertheless, continuing seismic shifts in demand, markets and delivery technologies for higher-level learning will keep open questions about the longer term future of the current HE system.

There is a polarisation of views on these questions. On the one side are the "learning 2.0 tendency", who hold that the traditional campus-based model of HE provision is obsolete and doomed in the new world of open educational resources and borderless learning services.

Ranked against them are the "defenders of the faith", who point out that demand for "traditional" university study continues to grow strongly around the world, and that new campus universities are opening daily in China, India and many other emerging economies.

A fresh perspective on this producer-centred impasse can be found by considering the kinds of customer-driven disruptive innovations that have overturned the established structures of almost every other major world industry, from IT to airlines to entertainment. In all of these industries, the power to control the market has moved from the traditional producers to their customer groups, causing the old guard to confront the existential question: what business are you in?

The answers to this question for today's universities are to be found in four tectonic forces that will shape the future environment for higher level learning, within which universities have unprecedented degrees of freedom to redefine the ways in which they will make their living. The four forces are:

• diverging domains of learning, which we categorise as discovery, solutions and practice, each with very different market imperatives and conditions for success

• next wave globalisation, characterised by internationally mobile demand and transnational provision and services, enabling all universities to become effective international players

• explosion of the learning value chain, as new possibilities arise for every element of the processes involved in delivering and supporting learning outcomes

• public-private mash-ups, where distinctions past between public institutions and private providers become blurred in a mixed economy of enterprising learning and supporting services.

We do not know which of today's universities will still be thriving in 10 or 20 years' time. But we can predict with some confidence that those who respond imaginatively and bravely to these forces will have better prospects than those who deny them.

Mike Boxall is a higher education specialist at PA Consulting Group.

You can contact us now or visit our website here to find out more about PA's expertise in higher education.

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