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Recruiting Intelligence

Avalanche Ahead: Will Your University Be Swept Away

Change is coming to higher education and if you are in its path, you'll be run over. The traditional university is being unbundled. This is one the core theses of this bold and forceful report: An Avalanche is Coming. The authors are Michael Barber, Katelyn Donnelly and Saad Rizvi, all senior education advisors and executives for the education service provider Pearson Corporation. The report makes the case that the next decades could see a golden age of higher education, but only if all players seize the initiative and act ambitiously. We have added a brief video introducing the report by the author below (3 min).

In a nutshell: University leaders need to take control of their own destiny and seize the opportunities open to them through technology to provide broader, deeper and more exciting education. Leaders will need to have a keen eye toward creating value for their students. The report has messages to all stakeholders in higher education.

  • To Universities They Say: Each university needs to be clear about the niches or market segments it wants to serve and how. The traditional multipurpose university with a combination of a range of degrees and a modestly effective research programme has had its day. The traditional university is being unbundled. Some will need to specialise in teaching alone – and move away from the traditional lecture to the multi-faceted teaching possibilities now available (in-class/online hybrids). Even more than today, universities will offer specific models: the elite university • the mass university • the niche university • the local university • the lifelong learning mechanism. These recommendations and predictions appear very similar to the recently published analysis by Ernst & Young on the future of Australian Universities (see Intead blog article: The University of the Future).
  • To Governments They Say: Rethink your regulatory regime in an era when university systems are global rather than national.
  • To Students and Citizens They Say: Find your unique path and seize the opportunity to learn and re-learn throughout your lives. Be ready to take personal responsibility both for yourself and the world around you. Every citizen is a potential student and a potential creator of employment.

The value of education is indisputable. Achieving a degree, measured in lifetime earnings, has significantly more value than completing high school. But the authors state that it is not clear that this will continue for all time and all degrees. Larry Summers, former Harvard President, mentions in the report's preamble that, "the fundamental question in An Avalanche is Coming is whether a university education is a good preparation for working life and citizenship in the 21st century, or more precisely, whether it will continue to be seen as good value, given the remorsefuless rise in the cost of a university education over the recent decades."

Graph 1 shows the well-known trend of rising tuition at public four-year colleges versus decreasing average earnings of a full-time worker with bachelor degree. These facts are not to discourage education, but to broaden the value proposition and increase access, while controlling costs.

Graph 1

Not only traditional higher education institutions will have to adjust. As Graph 2 points out. Currently, employers don't value online education in the same way as traditional education...yet. The report authors expect this perception to change to the positive over the next few years. Notice also how small the value gap is between traditional public and non-profit institutions and for-profit institutions in the eyes of employers as compared to the general media and academic tone in respect to for-profits.

In our experience, universities have to make tough choices about resource allocation and program focus. Admissions departments are asked to recruit students across and for all departments regardless of the desirability and competitiveness of the program. The effectiveness of enrollment marketing could be increased with a narrower focus and more student segmentation.

In Chapter 4, seizing the future, the authors summarize eight emerging themes of the paper and then describe some models of the future university after the unbundling and re-bundling has occurred. We are familiar with the themes, including:

  • Much of the value added by universities won't be content,
  • Need to close the theory/practice gap
  • The three or four year path to completion is no longer standard

Here are two specific report conclusion we consider worthy of our attention:

  • "Another implication of an era where access is free, is that a brand matters, perhaps sometimes more than the accredited degree itself. In a world where employers make snap judgments to prioritize candidates, students will need every advantage to get ahead. Thus the signaling power of the university degree as determined by the strength of its brand will prove of great value to the student." We've all seen this and often played a part in those snap judgements when we hear where someone went to college.
  • "The combination of marketisation – the student consumer as king with options outside universities for talented students too – and globalisation, will lead to universities being less and less contained within national systems and more and more both benchmarked globally and a leading part of the growth of knowledge economics – collaborating and competing. In the new world the learner will be in the driver’s seat, with a keen eye trained on value. For institutions, deciding to embrace this new world may turn out to be the only way to avoid the avalanche that is coming." We note a striking importance and alertness in the report to global competition among European (and Australian) higher education options. We find this competition for international students is fiercer outside U.S. borders. The U.S. market appears more isolated from that pressure. Though research areas of U.S. universities tend to feel that global competition for international students more intensely.

Graph 2: Mean Value Employers Place on Higher Education Degrees by Institution

Sources: ACS (2008); Olshansky et al. (2012); U.S. Census (1990)


Topics: Insights