Reimagining academia: How education is being upended.

Academic institutions are often cast as organisations keen to change the world, while they stay the same.

There are specific challenges for digital transformation in higher education.

The people and research they produce are the wellspring of economic and social innovation. Yet their institutional caution makes the work of reshaping how universities, colleges, and other education providers work in response to that changing world very challenging.

But whatever the pressures to preserve are on the inside, even the world’s most prestigious educational bodies are becoming increasingly vulnerable to disruption from outside. In responding, these institutions face a choice: evolve, decline or perish. All these options come with some pain; only the first also comes with great reward.

How the market has changed

Long-held assumptions about high quality education - who buys it, who supplies it, where it takes place, how it is delivered, and how it is valued in the labour market - are being challenged. The expectations and experiences of students, academics and administrators are rapidly changing. Yet most teaching, research and publication cycles still reflect an earlier, slower age.

While demand for world-class teaching and research remains strong, the rising costs of university education are turning prospective students into more discerning customers. New players - from other countries, or with different business models - threaten every institution that fails to adapt. Universities operate in a globally competitive marketplace; the best researchers, post-graduates and undergraduates have the mobility and data access they need to pick the best. And while the hype around new players bringing on MOOCs and microcredentials has yet to deliver the full extent of transformation they initially promised, these represent a full-frontal challenge to the established business model of higher and further education. That threat has not gone away. The challengers only need to succeed once.

Hybrid and online learning will also mean rethinking the student experience. Generative AI raises fundamental questions about the nature of learning and assessment. The rise of lifelong learning, and even YouTube tutorials, means the standard, linear three-year undergraduate degree will increasingly seem like just one option amongst many.

Having played a central role in shaping the people who have brought new ways of working and thinking into the world, leaders in the education sector now need to apply this same thinking to their own organisations.

Common pain points in education

Certain complaints made inside educational institutions are almost universal.

It takes too long to make decisions, and they often feel top-down. There isn’t enough real-time data to base them on. Student experience is framed too narrowly on teaching and not the life stage it represents. Getting the balance right between keeping precious intellectual property cyber secure and enabling academic collaboration is a struggle. Funding huge building projects is less of a headache than incremental service improvement.

Addressing these challenges

Addressing these challenges while preserving what gives academic institutions strength is a delicate process of change. It means adopting user-centred approaches, becoming more comfortable with testing and learning, showing bold leadership, and building new in-house skills and capability.

But get this right, and the opportunities for educational institutions are huge. It will become possible to forge deeper, lifelong connections with hundreds of thousands of alumni, offering them easy access to courses that make them lifelong learners. It could reduce the friction and faff that impedes interdisciplinary and international collaboration. It could create the space to challenge ancient university brands on a new and more level playing field. It could open up the institution to new markets in growing economies hungry for access to world-class education.

Unlocking that potential is only possible if education leaders grasp the opportunity to be radical about how they do things, as much as what they do.


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