This blog post first appeared on the Times Higher's website and can be found here.
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Universities have formed part of our landscape for almost a thousand years. Today, the higher education sector is populated by over 20,000 universities with various rankings that permit potential staff, students or research funders to make comparisons. Despite clear differences in research intensity, size and age, most universities share four common assumptions about how they deliver undergraduate education. Students generally attend campus; where fees are being paid, they are paid directly to the university; the default setting remains full-time study and all of the credits for your qualification usually come from the same provider.
Predicting the future of a sector isn’t easy. After all, most of us are struggling to create free time rather than worrying about how best to spend the time saved by flying cars and domestic robots. Nevertheless, higher education does feel like it is poised on the edge of a revolutionary period. Some institutions have tinkered with the four assumptions set out above, whilst others like Woolf are making more radical moves. It may be timely to explore each of these assumptions in turn and see what lessons other industries might offer.
Going to university has always been something of a rite of passage; leaving home for the first time, making new friends and fending for yourself. All of this was easier when financial support, in the form of grants, was widely available. Today’s students, and their families, make major financial investment decisions when choosing where to go and what to study. The movie business has been facing a similar “place” challenge for at least two decades. If you wanted to see the latest release, there was no choice but to travel, pay for a ticket and watch on the big screen. The advent of video rental and now streaming has fundamentally changed the assumption that they customer has to come to your premises. The result has been an arms race. Movie theatres introduced IMAX screens, reclining seats, 3D systems and the like. Individual customers can mimic surround sound and big screens in the comfort of their own home. In higher education, distance and online learning have thrived in the postgraduate market but most undergraduates aren’t yet making the decision to learn at home rather than paying the sticker price for the full campus experience. Perhaps because of this, universities and private firms are building student accommodation blocks on the basis place will continue to be important.
A second assumption is that the transaction for a degree is between the student and the university with the academic as a salaried employee. There are subtle differences where funding comes direct from the government as is the case in Scotland but even there, the fees flow to the university which in turn hires academic and professional service staff to deliver the educational experience. In sports and entertainment, the power of the individual has grown whilst that of the corporate provider has weakened. Image rights and royalties now tend to flow to a smaller number of elite performers meaning that a higher proportion of the “fee” flows direct to the “talent”. The twenty teams in the English Premier League have a collective wage bill of a staggering £48m per week. Star academics do get well paid but imagine a parallel YouTube world, where the individual educator was selling their content direct to the student and keeping most of the fee. Surely that would be unworkable? Yet, Woolf is attempting to create a blockchain university with low operating costs and the majority of the money flowing to individual academics for the delivery of the educational experience.
This links to the third assumption, that students study for the totality of their degree with a single provider. Yes, it is true that most institutions will accredit prior learning to enable students to transfer in from another university but this is the exception not the norm. Health issues or simply realising that your first choice of degree wasn’t for you tend to be one-off situations looked at sympathetically on a case-by-case basis. The music industry operated with a similar mentality where customers had to buy a whole album until iTunes came along, allowing them customers to buy individual tracks. Since then, the ground has shifted again to subscription-based streaming from Spotify and other providers. What if you could build your own degree by choosing the best courses from a range of universities? In effect, you’d be creating your own academic playlist.
Finally, whilst post experience students studying MBAs and other postgraduate qualifications on a flexible, part-time basis, most undergraduates are still full-time students. The introduction of graduate apprentice degrees is chipping away at the accepted norm of full-time study followed by full-time employment for first degrees. Indeed, Sam Gyimah has already said that three year, full-time degrees should not be the norm and of course they aren’t in Scotland where undergraduate degrees tend to take four years. But both pattern and pacing count. A generation of students raised with the expectation that you can binge watch an entire series on the day of its release, or just as easily pick something up seamlessly after a lengthy break might begin to think about their degree studies in the same way. The traditional TV broadcasters have had to adjust their mindset in response to the bold strategic moves of new entrants like Netflix. Could universities cope with a mix of starting points and a range of paces from binge educators to meandering laggards?
Some of these assumptions are being stretched and tested by individual universities. Where it gets really interesting is looking at the assumptions as an interlocking set. IKEA, Amazon, Google and other global behemoths came at established markets with a distinctive reconfiguration the business norms used by existing providers. Other sectors have said it can’t happen here. Just ask your local bookseller, if you still have one. What if one university, a new entrant or an established player, were to revolutionise the university sector by offering more choice, more flexibility, lower cost and higher quality? Allowing students to pick and choose individual courses from leading experts at a range of universities, accrediting these to validate a degree that flexes from lightening quick to slow roast depending on circumstances and offering the option of dropping into and out of campus-based experiences as required. Then we’d all be losing sleep. Unless of course, we were working for the university that was reinventing the game.