New frontiers of higher education competition

Hamish Coates provides insight on how universities can navigate changing competitive frontiers in higher education

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Hamish Coates's avatar
Tsinghua University
3 Jan 2021
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New frontiers of competition in global higher education

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A new scene

The 2020 pandemic has opened a new global era for higher education which has markedly different characteristics to those which have gone before. To prosper in this new era, universities will have to navigate novel competitive frontiers. Here, I look at emerging frontiers and forecast how institutions will need to adapt for future success.

The international era

The mid-1990s marked the time when higher education transitioned from tight-knit, collegial collaborations to globally oriented and big-money ventures. Broad global developments played an important role in this “international era”, such as cheap flights, economic flourishing in Asia, scaling of the internet and digital devices, and swelling demand for professional skills. Advances in science and technology, reduced government outlays, and a shift to more executive management arrangements drove changes specific to the sector itself.

These shifts led institutions and governments to pursue what developed into reasonably entrenched and well-known objectives. Spurred by “international rankings”, research funding has been directed to areas likely to yield demonstrable scientific and bibliometric dividends. Universities have leveraged such status, and where feasible the delivery of English-language credentials, into attracting a large number of premium students. Students contribute funds and expertise that universities distribute to expand this virtuous cycle. Rational leadership, in this milieu, seeks to optimise citable publications, student flows, productive researchers and efficient teachers. Policies, roles and institutions changed in step.

A new global era

Although brewing for several years already, the sudden shock then continued disruption of the past year have accelerated a shift to a different global era. This era is distinguished by several characteristics. For instance, the centre of gravity in terms of people and institutions is shifting from the Atlantic towards the Pacific. There is a reversion to favouring a smaller quantum of influential publications rather than a larger volume of incremental contributions. Accordingly, emphasis is shifting from publishing research to generating social and environmental contribution.

Given doctoral training and retirement patterns since the 1990s, these changes are being hoovered up by a new generation of Asian and post-Boomer Anglo faculty. These academics are being cultivated in an era with radically different constraints around intellectual property and innovation, and in which flexible and hybrid rather than in-country and on-campus teaching is the default. This shift is opportune given the growth in demand for lifelong education, going way beyond delivering final credentials to people in their mid-20s, to helping people learn throughout life. Coupled with all of this is the need for universities and the higher education sector to compete, or partner, with commercial firms that provide efficient and quality-assured core academic services.

Navigating novel frontiers

This global era is seeding novel competitive frontiers. These frontiers will be relevant to many more institutions than those that were able to conquer bibliometric tallies, big budgets, research trophies and international reputations.

Institutional resilience: It is already clear that mastering volatility will be key to thriving in the global era. Institutions will prosper when they are able to remain resilient and sustain contribution through tough and uncertain moments. Institutional resilience is of course a much more diffuse target than bibliometric output, but it is a phenomenon that is reasonably well articulated, is evidently important, and can be developed.

Impactful research: The value and impact rather than just the quantum or quality of research will be important. Tighter financials coupled with greater community expectations will lead institutions to sharpen the scope of their research portfolios. This carries the risk of short-sighted swerving towards easy pay-offs, and care will be required to ensure that meaningful and less flashy fields are not ignored or discarded. The key to helping institutions navigate such trade-offs will be the formation of a cogent set of success indicators.

Engaging students: Student markets will change, and successful institutions will reshape their networks and partnerships to service new pipelines, provision modalities and parcels of content. Intra-Asian, online and emerging country demand is growing. Maturing higher education systems, particularly in Asia, will compete against already dominant systems. Success in this area is signposted in obvious ways by student flows, although may be indexed as well by the nature and gravitation of broader institutional plays.

Cultivating staff: Ultimately, although technology always looks fancy, it is academic and professional staff who deliver value for higher education. In the global era, institutions that engage staff in delivering publicly valuable projects are likely to be the most successful. This seems obvious, and is automatic in many professions, though it applies across the board and rests not on individuals but on underlying cultures and values.

Productive partnerships: All kinds of industry partnerships and joint ventures will be vital in years to come, not just in terms of research but for the core teaching and learning business. Doing everything in-house with uber-faculty is increasingly being seen as insufficient and inefficient. The health of industry and service partnerships is therefore increasingly an indicator of any institution’s capacity to deliver.

Smart specialisation: As the “international era” gained momentum, so too did single-minded obsessions about chasing a reasonably uniform kind of institutional image. Conversely, pursuing diverse aims, particularly via smart specialisation, will help each institution enact its distinguishing form of brilliance.

Effective governance: All this needs astute leadership. Even though after years of research and innovation it remains unclear what this really means, it probably means leaders with academic, administrative and political expertise and authority. No one works alone, and effective leadership arrangements are required, including the formation of executive teams with balance and agility. This applies to governance too.

Academic integrity: Finally, academic integrity will play a growing role. Once upon a time, when a small number of global colleagues caught up to compare notes and standards, there was a reasonable amount of confidence in the integrity of teaching and learning. As higher education has expanded, and threats escalated, ensuring quality has required increasing complexity and infrastructure. Looking ahead, institutions will need to prove they have systems in place to assure the success they purport to deliver.

Hamish Coates is director of the higher education division at Tsinghua University and recently published Higher Education Design: Big deal partnerships, technologies and capabilities.


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