In the media

Rethinking universities from the outside in

By Mike Boxall

Media FHE

26 May 2021

This article was first published in Media FHE

Are universities immune from global disruptions?

Long before the COVID pandemic we had grown used to seeing the disruptive effects of the global trends reshaping established economic sectors, reflected in the demise of once-dominant corporate giants and the rise of new structures, players and business dynamics. The list of transformed sectors covers almost every area of economic life, from finance to healthcare, retail to transport, energy to entertainment. In consequence, experiences of work, leisure and daily life have changed dramatically for everyone in society, both for better and worse.

Thus far, the higher education sector has stood out as an exception to these otherwise-ubiquitous disruptions. Higher education still remains largely the protected preserve of autonomous universities, organised around structures, services and operations recognisable from 10, even 50, years ago. This traditional model of institution-centred higher education provision appears anachronistic in comparison to other sectors but has remained remarkably resilient despite the many predictions of its ‘inevitable’ demise.

This leads us to two fundamental questions for universities:

a. Is the traditional institution-centric historical model of higher education somehow insulated from the vulnerabilities of every other sector of the 21st century economy?

b. If not, how should universities adapt to the external forces which have disrupted and reshaped other economic sectors and the societal needs that they exist to serve?

Succeeding in the new learning economy

It is almost impossible to exaggerate the extent to which the outside world for universities – as for every other part of society – is transforming. It is a world characterised by the erosion of past certainties and the emergence of new imperatives across the domains of politics, economics, industry and society. The cumulative effect of these changes (especially for universities) is a transition from the late-20th century Knowledge Economy, based on the proprietary control and transactional exchange of information, into a worldwide Learning Economy. In this world, prosperity is driven by cooperative problem-solving, involving multiple players working together to resolve shared needs and problems, thereby generating shared value for all concerned.

At the global level, the most relevant of these needs and problems are reflected in the 17 Strategic Development Goals identified by the United Nations, each of which is becoming an important arena of economic and societal enterprise, both governmental and commercial. At the more prosaic level, the relevant problems are how to create new systems to meet the complex needs of customers and citizens for better services, experiences and outcomes in their daily lives.

This is a world and economy to be understood in terms of interdependent systems rather than competitive transactions, generating collective benefits rather than securing proprietary advantages. It is moreover a world in which the distinctive dominion of universities is no longer self-evident or unchallenged. As the demands for higher level learning and knowledge sharing have exploded, so too has the number and variety of alternative providers and choices for meeting them. Universities are becoming one set of providers among many others serving and developing the global Learning Economy and can no longer presume or assert their natural hegemony in that economy.

The historical distinctiveness and status of universities in the modern world is being eroded by externally imposed criteria for relevance and value and by the rise of new providers and systems for meeting those criteria. It follows that universities must recognise and respond to the new rules of engagement in the global Learning Economy, adapting the principles of social purpose, openness, enterprise and digital empowerment demonstrated by the game-setting leaders in other sectors.

Envisaging tomorrow’s universities

So, what might tomorrow’s universities look like if they choose to engage with the emerging Learning Economy through similar operating principles to Amazon, Google and the other 21st century disruptors? We envisage four defining and interacting design tenets:

Universities for Others” – outward-looking and deeply connected to the various communities that they serve. Strategic focus shifts from institutional advantages to ‘who are we here to serve?’, ‘what do they need from us?’ and ‘how can we best meet those needs?’

Digitally-Enabled, People-Powered” – using technology to enhance the essentially human bases of learning and innovation. While the COVID experience has shown the (hitherto under-developed) possibilities of technology-enhanced knowledge exchanges, it has also highlighted that education and research remain essentially interpersonal and communal activities

Learning and Innovation Ecosystems” – engaging with multiple stakeholders and partners in collaborative communities to co-create and realise knowledge-based societal solutions. Both internally and externally, universities are increasingly being seen operating as open, multi-faceted ecosystems working with and through external partners

Knowledge and Learning Enterprises” – generating, monetising and sharing in third-party and societal benefits. The deficit funding model whereby universities rely on fees and grants to cover their inherent costs is anachronistic in comparison with other Learning Economy sectors that have grown by monetising and tapping into the total value created by their ecosystems.

Translating disruptions into futures

The outside-in drivers outlined here offer a high-level vision of possible university futures, which will be interpreted and applied differently by every institution. As design principles, they can serve as lenses through which to consider development strategies for each functional and operational aspect of institutions’ higher education business – education, research, knowledge exchanges and related services. But in doing this, we must not lose sight of the distinctive values – intellectual integrity, academic rigour, societal mission – that have made and will continue to make universities special and important in a complex and ambiguous world.

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