Animated future for UK universities

November 18, 2012

You might think higher education mission groups only get animated when they are scoring points at each other's expense.

But the University Alliance of "business-engaged" universities is taking a novel approach, producing a cartoon envisaging four different scenarios for university futures, which it plans to use in lobbying politicians and around the country.

Libby Hackett, the University Alliance chief executive, says in her voiceover for the animation (in which she appears in cartoon form) that the piece is an attempt to "change the terms of the debate".

The debate on higher education has so far focused on tuition fees and their impact on student numbers, with little discussion of the social and economic role of universities, she says.

The animation's four scenarios for the future of universities are based on combinations of two variables: a high- or low-growth economy, and a collaborative or competitive society.

The first scenario, "Uni_Divide", takes place in a contracting economy and competitive, consumerist society. The low tax take means the government prioritises pensioner benefits over investment in higher education.

This produces a two-tier sector, where elite institutions charge high fees and have a monopoly on overseas students, while others rely on business funding.

Social mobility declines because of the high cost of obtaining a university education and the low number of start-up businesses spinning out of universities leads to a "decline in innovation".

In the second scenario, "Uni_Public", there is a low-growth economy but a collaborative society. The government ensures universities deliver the skills and courses its industrial strategy needs. But student numbers decrease because of limits on spending, and because there can only be one type of institution per locality "a number of universities have to close".

In the third scenario, "Uni_Wifi", under a growing economy and collaborative society, there is a "creative and innovative economy" which leads to an emphasis on the "innovative capacity of our graduates".

Intellectual property protections are abandoned in research; academics are trained to deliver teaching via the internet; and universities no longer focus on building their individual brand but on networks.

In the final scenario, "Uni_Market", a growing economy and a competitive society leads to middle-wage jobs moving offshore to emerging nations. University is seen as "the gateway to success", student numbers rise as students are "willing to accept personal debt". Public funding is awarded to universities through competition and universities focus on their individual brand.

Ms Hackett concludes that the scenarios are "not exhaustive, but they are provocative".

university_vision: what is your vision for universities?

university_vision: what is your vision for universities? from University Alliance on Vimeo.

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