The change is inherent to the University, but now it takes on new dimensions and perspectives, already perceptible before the Covid-19 crisis and accelerated and intensified with it, which entail substantial transformations in practically all areas: in the supports, the methods , the contents of the teachings, the structures, the organization, the modes of relationship and even the university paradigms.
Given this, it is not possible to conduct university affairs “looking through the rear-view mirror” at old realities and problems, and what is required is a great deal of capacity for renewal and innovation to adapt to the new trends observed in the world of higher education. There are, in my opinion, five main transformation scenarios that are outlined in the global university environment, which I will briefly refer to below.
1. The educational demand will grow
The first of these scenarios is on the side of an educational demand that is expected to continue growing and will have a greater transnational component. But most significant are the changes in the composition of that demand, in three main directions.
- On the one hand, in a changing qualifications scheme , with reinforcement of those related to employability and new technologies and oriented towards greater flexibility, diversity and quality of programs, which requires a thorough review of the “what” and the “how ”Of traditional teachings, to adapt both to new content and to innovative supports and ways of organizing and offering them.
- On the other hand, in the ways of participating in education , which are also undergoing substantive transformations with respect to traditional schemes, with changes in attendance and residential and full-time dedication, in the duration of studies, with extension to training throughout life, and with students who will take courses in various institutions and with different modalities and strategies.
- Furthermore, in the nature of credentials , which could dilute the importance of formal degrees awarded by universities, with the emergence of alternative degree patterns to the current ones, which will have more relevance for more students in more parts of the world. University degrees run the risk of losing importance in the face of programs and credentials that will have a value similar to that of university certifications for employers.
2. The educational offer will be transformed
The second scenario is on the supply side, in the changes in size and the recomposition of that offer, along with the emergence of new markets. The most significant of the transformations that are outlined can be condensed into the following fundamental elements.
- On the one hand, in the appearance of more, new and different providers (companies, corporations, digital platforms and diverse entities), which are breaking the traditional university monopoly of higher education and could even threaten its hegemony, under the claim of improve your “utility function” for employment.
- To this element, on the other hand, is added the trend that points to an increasing mobility of teaching , driven by forms of transnational education that, instead of moving students, lead to “exporting” education through international programs. and, especially, of the online offer .
- And, as a consequence, the trend towards a growing internationalization of the offer of education and an expansion of transnational education crystallizes , with new channels to be channeled, such as the branches of international campuses (conceived as hubs or educational bases), the emergence of multinational universities and, in short, a university globalization that breaks with the old conceptions of mobility and with the traditional implementation and organizational schemes.
3. Greater university competition
The third of the global scenarios in which profound changes are observed is that of greater pressure from university competition. The competition is open and guided fundamentally by a main market based on university reputation and prestige, based on greater differentiation of universities and supported by instruments such as rankings , which have become elements of institutionalization of that competition.
This competence is taking shape in all areas: in the recruitment of students, in the intensification of the race for excellence and the recruitment of talent, in research and its results, and, finally, in the struggle for a prestige that one of its components in the reinforcement and international homologation of the evaluation, accreditation and quality assurance systems.
The increase in competition is also leading to a progressive differentiation of institutions and to a university system that will become more and more “university”, with ongoing processes that will lead to “nominal convergence” and, at the same time, to a true and notorious “real divergence” between universities.
That same dynamic simultaneously generates stimuli for the need to “cooperate to compete”, to develop projects and processes that many universities could not tackle on their own, through the formation of strategic alliances and collaboration networks to share complementary capacities and offer integrated programs. and sets.
4. The irruption of online
The fourth of the scenarios is the one that draws the emergence of the online educational component . Technology is leading to radical changes in the educational world. The teaching resources are open online, people want to study “on demand”, where, when and how they want, the learning experiences are already inside as well as outside the classroom and that involves changes of enormous scope and significance for teaching, research, organization and resources.
The development of online education , whose growth I do not know if it threatens to become a “university bubble”, is a “disruptive” fact, both because they substantially alter the traditional ways of providing training and the old organizational schemes, and because with them it changes the discourse of higher education that is no longer tied to a specific location and whose provision is decoupled from restrictions related to space and time.
There is no doubt about the enormous potential and undoubted advantages offered by the instruments of new technologies, and particularly big data and artificial intelligence for the modernization of education, especially in areas as decisive as the development of personalized training programs.
But there are also risks related to the inequalities that could be generated, the threat of differentiation between an elite education restricted to select segments versus a massification of standardized online education , the deprivation to students of the experiences that universities offer as places of social interaction, or the danger of deterioration of the teachings that could suppose an extensive growth without the adequate instruments of quality control and without the specific adaptation of the university regulations that are required.
5. New organizational schemes
And the fifth of the new university scenarios refers to the far-reaching transformations that are outlined in the design and organization of university structures and in operating and business models.
The new organizational schemes seem to point in several directions. The efficiency objectives are imposed and will make it necessary to detail plans, initiatives, proposals and actions to measure and improve all the performance and results in teaching, research, quality, transfer and job placement of graduates.
The new techniques and organizational models prioritize those of a more managerial nature and lead to the revision of the current configuration of university governance systems. Leaderships and managerial decisions tend to be increasingly decentralized, in the manner of the companies of the new economy, sharing more flexible and changing tasks and positions and a more agile, managerial and slimmer structure.
Additionally, new functions and tasks of the teachers are generated, it breaks with the academic model that develops the complete training trajectory in the same institution and a trend is opened in which academic talent moves towards more entrepreneurial teaching and university models.
Likewise, there are trends towards a greater participation of private or user-supported financing that, while threatening the nature of higher education as a public good, forces universities to diversify their sources of financing and obtain higher returns on their activities and services. Perhaps the time has also come to review the traditional ways of thinking and approach financing, which cannot be seen and conceived in the same way as always in this digital age.
This set of profound transformations carries undoubted risks, but it also offers enormous possibilities for universities that are capable of developing adequate adaptation and renewal strategies. Once again, it could be said that the University is at a crossroads. But a crossroads is just the opposite of a dead end and, therefore, the key is to hit the road.
Author Bio: Juan A. Vázquez is Professor of Applied Economics at the University of Oviedo