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What can institutions do to get ahead of a fast-changing higher ed market?

Dive Brief:

  • Universities must prepare for a future where students could demand degrees, low-cost options or asynchronous learning. Otherwise, institutions risk becoming obsolete, according to a recent report from consulting firm EY.
  • The report poses several scenarios to higher education leaders that would destabilize many universities’ current way of doing business. Themes include a dramatic change to the cost of learning and an uptick in global connectivity from developing technologies.
  • Four key recommendations to education leaders are highlighted: Be clear about long-term purpose, consider possible future scenarios when making today’s choices, find leadership talent from other sectors that have already had to reinvent themselves, and invest across current and future time horizons.

Dive Insight:

The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically accelerated the need for online learning in higher education, even after the sector was already adding remote capabilities. Some colleges, like Arizona State University, leaned heavily into the trend. In January, Arizona State set a goal of reaching 100 million learners by 2030 with its online global management and entrepreneurship certificate program. 

The universities that aren’t making big pivots and expanding their offerings risk getting left behind, according to Catherine Friday, global education leader at EY and the report’s author. She said a university leader’s first step should be to clearly define the university’s purpose and in what areas it excels.

“We often ask our clients, ‘Who are you here to serve? If you look out the window at the students you see, do you know why they are on your campus, and not another institution’s campus?'” Friday said in an email. Leadership should also determine if what they deliver is special.

The report asks what would happen to higher education under five future scenarios: 

  • Learning costs nothing or very little.
  • Education becomes flexible and customizable.
  • Universities are held directly accountable for student outcomes.
  • Commercialized research pays for itself.
  • Technology allows students to have access to similar teaching and coursework regardless of their physical location.

Every example would have widespread implications for research universities. They’re the most pressing scenarios because they have the potential to impact every education provider around the world, according to Friday.

“Any institution that isn’t actively engaged in considering these questions, and what they mean for themselves, risks being left below the new baseline levels of delivering academic experience and research excellence,” Friday said. “All of these five will change not just the providers themselves but the systems in which they operate.”

Universities need to reinvent themselves to remain competitive, but big change can be difficult, especially for older, well-established institutions. The report recommends university leaders adopt the energy of a startup, with an outlook toward growth and expansion.

Friday is optimistic most universities will acclimate to the changes facing higher education, especially if they take the report’s findings under advisement. But she acknowledges some are going to struggle.

“I have no doubt many universities will thrive and embrace the emerging opportunities,” Friday said. “But as in any ecosystem change, I expect there will be some who simply cannot change fast enough and don’t survive in their current form.”


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