The challenges facing universities before Covid have not gone away, but the pandemic has shown that the sector can adapt at pace. Greater openness and collaboration can help institutions carve out a new identity
A global pandemic has few silver linings, but for higher education, it has been an opportunity to show that universities can adapt rapidly. “It has been a challenge to the innate conservatism and inertia the sector is assumed to have, and there’s a feeling we have more agency and scope for change,” says Mike Boxall, higher education expert at PA Consulting.
In many ways, however, the past year has distracted from fundamental challenges the sector faced before the crisis, including the shift towards the platform economy and more collaborative, rather than transactional, ways of working. Universities must catch up with the skills needed to thrive in a networked economy. Rather than providing a “stamp on the forehead” for young undergraduates, universities need to focus much more on lifelong learning and reskilling, argues Boxall.
This will lead some institutions to question how they retain their relevance, Boxall adds. “In the past, universities were the curators of knowledge within society, but as we move into a more open world, they won’t have the same natural hegemony as [came with] being central to the knowledge economy.” Consumers today have many ways to access and share knowledge, and universities risk becoming marginalised as a result, particularly if they remain wedded to insular ways of working rather than a more outward-looking culture.
Add to this the readiness with which students have accepted online and blended learning, and it’s clear that universities need to carve out a new role within the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This means redefining their relationship with technology. “Becoming digital should not mean doing away with universities; the student experience is about more than absorbing course content,” Boxall explains. “But universities need to find ways of not only being great with tech but also offering something more than an exchange of information.”
So how should institutions respond? They must place greater focus on their purpose and who they intend to serve. Universities’ economic viability remains challenged due to a decline in international students and the low return on investment that often comes with research. Moving away from institutional standings and focusing on their public role will build a more sustainable position, argues Boxall.
One example is London South Bank University, which focuses on creating economic and employment opportunities for its local community; another is the University of Sunderland, which has built close partnerships with NHS trusts and social care employers in north-east England to supply in-demand skills.
Universities must also embrace openness by sharing resources and collaborating with competitors, building “ecosystems rather than sets of transactions”, says Boxall. This could mean working with online education platforms or fostering collaborations with international providers. “There will be a need for more work-related content and continuing education, and universities need to find that symbiosis if they are to diversify and make a living,” Boxall adds.
Ultimately, this will require a reassessment of business models and how universities generate value. Arizona State University, for example, has launched a research and innovation facility with Starbucks to design more sustainable ways to run its stores and hone employees’ decision-making skills. The university’s president, Michael Crow, describes this approach as creating “knowledge enterprises, not cost centres”. It’s a trend that will see institutions reflect market demands, offering short courses, bespoke corporate learning and stackable awards. Through partnerships and an openness to collaboration, universities can create “borderless higher education”, ensuring they thrive for decades to come.
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