UK universities ‘face online threat’
“Complacent” British universities that fail to respond to the rise of online universities will be swept away by global competition, says a report into the future of higher education.
Sir Michael Barber, chief education adviser for Pearson, says online courses will be a “threat and opportunity” for the UK’s universities.
This “avalanche” could see some middle-ranking universities closing, he says.
“There are too many universities doing the same thing,” says Sir Michael.
The report, An Avalanche is Coming, argues that higher education faces an unpredictable global revolution, driven by the impact of the rise in online universities.
In the face of such an avalanche, Sir Michael says that “standing still” is the most dangerous option.
“The big risks are complacency and timidity,” he says.
The former Downing Street adviser says he would be “very surprised” if such disruption in higher education did not mean the closure of some universities within a decade.
The report, published by the IPPR think tank, warns that the UK’s universities will have to adapt to direct international competition.
There are already big US networks of universities offering courses to students anywhere in the world, with two consortiums having already signed up almost four million students.
These offer hundreds of courses from partner universities in Europe and Asia as well as the US.
These so-called MOOCs – massive open online courses – give students online access to lectures and courses from leading academics and universities around the world.
Sir Michael says this creates an opportunity for the UK – and that there is nothing inevitable about this emerging market being dominated by big players from the US.
Futurelearn, an online consortium of UK universities, is expected to launch courses later this year.
Sir Michael forecasts that this more competitive environment will see the component parts of universities being “unbundled”.
Research could be taken over by private specialist institutions or universities could focus on the quality of teaching, using lectures and course materials created elsewhere.
It could also see universities emerging that are more systematically integrated with their local economies.
Such internationalisation will also mean challenges for national government, says Sir Michael.
The current undergraduate finance model, where students borrow to study for three years in a UK institution, does not provide for a future in which students might want to take course units from a range of universities, both in the UK and abroad.
Sir Michael also says the government will have to reconsider how they can develop start-up businesses around universities, following the pattern of hi-tech industries in the United States growing around Stanford University in California and MIT in the Boston area.
“The certainties of the past are no longer certainties. The models of higher education that marched triumphantly across the globe in the second half of the 20th Century are broken,” write the report authors, Sir Michael Barber, Katelyn Donnelly and Saad Rizvi.
“Just as globalisation and technology have transformed other huge sectors of the economy in the past 20 years, in the next 20 years universities face transformation.”
Sir David Bell, vice chancellor of Reading University, said: “Success in the future will depend on agility, rather than a simple choice between one model of university or another.”
He suggested that this would mean combining advanced research and international campuses as well as being “intensely local”.