Relevance is paramount
Education provision in most UK universities has changed relatively little, and risks becoming irrelevant to the lifetime needs of students and society, as a recent survey by PA Consulting Group shows. Sector leaders should be worried about this but seem not to be.
Employers do not ask potential recruits “What have you learned?” They ask: “What can you do?”; “What have you done?”; and “What are you like?” Individuals and employers increasingly favour learning that is gained through experiences, challenges and working in a variety of settings. Yet most universities expect students to fit into the prescribed teaching structures laid down over decades.
Vice-chancellors and other institutional leaders who took part in the survey acknowledge the importance of innovations in learning programmes, study modes and pathways. But, with a few notable exceptions, UK universities have been slow and even reluctant to embrace them. As a result, the UK higher education system is lagging behind world leaders in modernising and adapting to changing needs and expectations.
The disconcerting impression from our survey is that most vice-chancellors recognise this situation but remain relatively relaxed about it. In the short term, they point to the buoyant demand for current provision and the healthy finances of many providers. And looking ahead, many assume that patterns of demand, participation and provision in the higher education system will remain constant.
Even if one accepts the view that the scale and importance of innovations in education have been overstated, this still seems to be a dangerously complacent position. Traditional universities are facing growing competition from alternative providers and modes of learning. In addition, there is a lot of pressure to make all providers accountable for the relevance and value of their services, judged in terms of successful student outcomes.
An increased demand for relevant and rewarding student outcomes seems inevitable. It will be hard, if not impossible, for UK universities to satisfy these demands without significant changes to their current models. Their competitiveness will depend on embracing the innovations already being demonstrated in the international higher education system. This will be difficult, counter-cultural and even risky for institutions and their leadership – but the alternatives are worse.