According to An Avalanche is Coming: higher education and the revolution ahead, published by the Institute of Public Policy Research, “radical and urgent” transformation is needed in higher education, and institutions that fail to embrace such change risk being swept away.
Lead author Sir Michael Barber, chief education adviser at education Pearson and former adviser to Tony Blair’s Labour government, warned that even established, red brick universities are at risk.
“Our belief is that the models of higher education that marched triumphantly across the globe in the second half of the 20th Century require radical and urgent transformation. Our fear is that the nature of change is incremental and the pace of change too slow,” he says in the report.
In a press briefing to reporters, he added: “The ordinary one-town red brick university that just ticks over…will really suffer,” before making comparisons with the newspaper industry, saying publications that had appeared “historic and completely solid” had struggled with the shift from print to digital content.
The report calls on universities to specialise, arguing that increased competition from privately funded research and free online courses mean the “traditional university with a range of degrees and modestly effective research has had its day”.
It argues that the universities face the threat of being “unbundled” as they are forced to compete with more specialised institutions, online learning providers, and privately funded research centres.
“Some will need to specialise in teaching alone,” it says, while other might focus on building links with business, or concentrating solely on research. It identifies five types of university that might emerge in order to survive the coming challenges: the elite university; the mass university; the niche university; the local university; and the lifelong learning mechanism.
“Each university needs to be clear which niches or segments it wants to serve, and what will set its educational experience and impact apart,” the report says.
“The key messages from the report to every player in the system are that the new student consumer is king and standing still is not an option. Embracing the new opportunities …may be the only way to avoid the avalanche that is coming.”