Universities must face up to ‘avalanche of change’

Sir Michael Barber's report has warned that bold moves are required. Picture: Jane Barlow
Sir Michael Barber's report has warned that bold moves are required. Picture: Jane Barlow
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LEADING universities could find themselves under threat in the next decade if they fail to keep up with a coming “avalanche” of change, according to a new report.

Even elite red-brick institutions could find themselves at risk, according to Sir Michael Barber, a former adviser to Tony Blair and chief strategist at stock market-listed education company and publisher, Pearson.

Global online courses, technology, rising student expectations and new private companies are changing the landscape of higher education around the world, he argues in a report published by the IPPR think-tank.

Universities that fail to find their niche, and are complacent about their current position, could find they are left behind.

The study, An Avalanche Is Coming, suggests that the next 50 years could be a “golden age” for higher education, but could also mean intense pressure on universities.

“For universities, governments and students that seize the opportunity it could be a golden age ahead, but the big risks are timidity and risk aversion, as it’s definitely a time for bold thinking,” Sir Michael said.

His report argues that the pressure on universities is greater due to global competition between them, as well as “Moocs” – massive open online courses – and consultancies that develop people and produce research.

Moocs are free courses placed online by universities and academics for anyone to access and are becoming very popular.

“The traditional multi-purpose university with a combination of a range of degrees and a modestly effective research programme has had its day,” the report argues.

Each institution will need to be clear about which niche or part of the higher education market it wants to serve, and how it will do it.

Sir Michael suggested that universities which are complacent, or fail to respond to the changes, could run into trouble.

The institutions that will be strongly placed to deal with the changes are those that offer students a good, or unique deal, or enter research partnerships in specific areas, he suggested.

Sir Michael said that even leading universities could be at risk if they are complacent.

“The ordinary red-brick, one-town university that just ticks over as it did at the second half of the 20th century will really suffer.”

He suggested it was hard to predict how many universities, if any, could run into serious difficulties.

But he added he would not be surprised if a few ran into trouble, “given this avalanche is coming”.

He added: “I think within a decade or so, that’s possible.”

Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, which represents leading institutions including the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, said: “If the UK is to remain a global leader in higher education, with truly world-class institutions, then the government must concentrate investment where it will have the most impact.”