IPPR - An Avalanche is Coming: Higher Education and the Revolution Ahead

First published on Thu, April 18, 2013.

This report from IPPR sets out the challenges ahead for higher education.

It argues that the purpose and provision of higher education will undergo radical transformation as the twin pressures of new technology and globalisation recalibrate the ways in which people access education. The report asks whether or not the traditional university model continues to offer good preparation for working life, and whether or not it will continue to be seen as good value for money.

The report outlines three main challenges:

1. Ensure education for employability

As education becomes more expensive and the likelihood that a degree will lead employment grows becomes assured, learners will increasingly look for an education that ensures employability.

2. Breaking the link between cost and quality

New technology has the potential to democratise access to knowledge (e.g. through online resources) once only available through university institutions. New technology allows students to access and create high quality knowledge, mentoring opportunities and learning networks online at very little cost. One model that is becoming popular in America is the Massive Open Online Course or ‘MOOC’, which is a course offered free of charge, open to a global audience and built for large numbers of people.

Although there is no reason why cheaper models of provision should necessarily be of a lower quality than the educational resources available at traditional universities, evidence suggests that prospective students tend to assume that higher costs correlate with higher quality – leading many universities to set their fees at the maximum of £9,000 for fear that anything cheaper will be seen as low quality, regardless of actual costs. This myth must be dispelled if we want to encourage students to follow the educational path that will benefit them the most.

3. Changing the learning ecosystem to support alternative providers and the future of work

The report suggests that the accepted model of a three or four year full-time course is losing traction, as more and more students seek to combine work and study to reduce the accumulation of debt and build up employability skills. This will create opportunities for new modes of provision that engage with technological advances and the needs of the modern economy.

Five possible emerging models for higher education:

Model 1: The Elite University – these are traditional, prestigious organisations that continue to provide a largely theoretical education.

Model 2: The Mass University - These universities will use predominantly online or blended approaches and cater to thousands of students at a time. This model will allow students to customise and build their learning according to their personal interests or needs over a period of time that suits them best. This model will also emphasise the development of workplace skills, and may draw on the expertise of practitioners from business as well as traditional academics.

Model 3: The Niche University – These universities will seek to offer an exclusive and highly personalised education. One example is the AC Grayling’s New College of the Humanities, a new private, for-profit university based in London.

Model 4: The Local University - The report questions whether the polytechnics - all of which became universities in the 1990s - might have been more successful has they concentrated on creating a distinctive, vocational system responsive to the needs of the local economy. The local university would be based on a similar model.

Model 5: The Lifelong Learning Mechanism – This model is driven by the initiatives of learners who seek to build an education that suits their specific needs by taking a series of modules from different academic institutions around the world, to build their own degree without ever having officially attended university.

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