Technological innovations promising low-cost higher education “have all failed in the past and Moocs will go the same way” is one vice-chancellor’s verdict on current trends in the sector.
Another predicts that fee caps will disappear within three years, while a third says: “There is no higher education sector.”
The latest PA Consulting survey of vice-chancellors, now in its fifth year, includes in its main themes massive open online courses and the increasingly stratified, competitive nature of higher education.
The survey is based on responses from 60 vice-chancellors representing “more than one-third of leaders across all types of HE provision and all parts of the UK”, and includes anonymous personal observations from the sector’s top brass.
Mike Boxall, a higher education specialist at PA Consulting and co-author of the report, said that as the more competitive system introduced by the coalition takes effect, vice-chancellors are “absolutely fascinated to know what their peers are thinking and talking about”.
He also noted the candid nature of the responses.
Paul Woodgates, the report’s other author and another higher education specialist at the management consultancy, said that in the past vice-chancellors “used to think the government told them what to do” and gave them direction.
However, the survey now reveals a “totally different mindset” in which universities wish to act freely in accordance with their own missions, and the government is seen as “stopping them doing that”.
More than 90 per cent of those polled express “major or moderate concerns” about declining numbers of home/European Union postgraduates, and more than 80 per cent “are similarly worried about falling international numbers”, the report says.
Moocs? No worries
On Moocs, it adds: “Sector leaders are unimpressed by predictions that online alternatives will sweep away conventional providers of higher education, expressing confidence in the resilience of the established system to embrace and adapt to new ways of working.”
Just 8 per cent think it is highly likely that Moocs will lead to reduced fees for “HE services”.
“I wonder how many times over the last half century some movement in technology has been hailed as ‘the solution’ for low-cost education.
“They have all failed in the past and Moocs will go the same way,” one vice-chancellor says.
On the structure of higher education, several respondents predict that “as many as 20 to 30 current…institutions could become unviable if student demand continues to fall, particularly those with significant reliance on visa-dependent overseas students”.
One vice-chancellor says: “The advent of a true market without student number controls or fee restrictions will create huge turmoil and a radical redefinition of the HE landscape within two to three years.”
Nearly 90 per cent of those polled say it is very or quite likely that distinctions between public and private providers will become blurred.
“There is no higher education sector. There is a wide variety of suppliers of very different kinds who deliver varying quality experiences, with vastly different outcomes, at different price points and with varied benefits,” one vice-chancellor argues.