Higher education is at a "tipping point", with the traditional world-class elite universities facing threats to their status and reputation that will change the academic landscape for ever.
This was the warning from Peter Upton, director of the British Council Hong Kong, at a conference on international higher education at the University of Hong Kong last week.
Mr Upton said there was "a consensus among all politicians that education is the key to social and economic stability, to building an international civil society based on mutual understanding, respect and reciprocity. That, though, is where the consensus ends."
Speaking at the first conference of the World 100 Reputation Network, a group of communications professionals in world-class universities, he said that higher education was "the last unregulated global business", valued at more than $14 billion (£9.4 billion) a year.
"But we are living through one of those tipping points where in five years, (commentators will say) that this was the period when the landscape changed for ever, when the speed of reputational growth and decline suddenly accelerated.
"We all accept that higher education is borderless - ideas know no boundaries, do not accord any significance to geography and maps - and that is equally true of reputations and university rankings."
He cited the way in which BP had "haemorrhaged its reputational bank balance" as a result of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and asked: "This could never happen in higher education, could it?"
Mr Upton said that as governments around the world demanded more of universities while reducing their funding, "we are seeing an acceleration of the differentiation of provision between recruiting and selecting universities and ... research-led and teaching-led institutions".
"This is creating a more fractured landscape and it will lead to some mergers and acquisitions - excellence, whether by ranking, by student demand or by international recognition, will be harder to sustain, let alone generate," he added.
Quality of experience
Mr Upton predicted that fee-paying students increasingly will "voice their customer-service requirements" and become more influential in setting institutions' reputations.
"We can expect unofficial student league tables emerging as student Facebook groups talk openly about the quality of experience, as (ratemyprofessor.com) takes off ... The building blocks of reputation are going to be different in the future."
He added that the traditional patterns of student mobility would change, with China becoming a net importer of students by 2015 and new regional education hubs being established to challenge Western institutions in the market for global students.
"China six months ago ousted the UK from the number-two spot in the number of academic papers published, reflecting another tipping point in the landscape," he said.
"The change in international flows of students will affect the shape of national systems ... As we move towards a more integrated yet diverse structure, sustaining, building and protecting reputations will become harder in a landscape of ranking and global reporting."
Mr Upton said that to survive in this landscape, universities had to "invest in reputation, in partnership, in leveraging knowledge, in student satisfaction and in creating a learning community that is sustainable in a world of 24-hour newsfeeds, Facebook communities and diverse demands from students, business and government - let alone from world league tables and regional rankings."
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