Innovation in higher education

By Geoff Mulgan and Mary Abdo –

For universities around the world these are both exhilarating and troubling times. Enrolment in tertiary education has risen beyond any expectations, to some 150m worldwide. A truly global industry has taken shape, with new technology enabling rapid collaboration and dissemination of ideas, and students increasingly matriculating at foreign institutions.

Yet there is also disquiet. Much important knowledge creation takes place outside of higher education. Few institutions are rich or self-sustaining, and many face severe squeezes on costs. Despite high hopes, only a handful have actually made a surplus from their technology transfer and spin-out activities.

So what might universities become in an era which should be so rich in opportunity? It would be strange if the same answer was right for all universities, given the diverse needs of university stakeholders, which include students, governments, industry, and academics. Many higher education institutions have tried to be all things to all people, and a few institutions at the top can do this effectively. But most fail. That’s why we believe the key to the future of higher education lies elsewhere: in greater pluralism, with the deliberate cultivation of diverse models; in greater specialisation, with universities identifying a few areas in which they will excel; and in better integration, with institutions and individuals sharing knowledge more effectively but also integrating more effectively with the world outside. In what follows we suggest how these goals may be realised.

HE institutions need to innovate as they become both more global and more local

Foreign HE systems, particularly in Asia, are growing at exceptional pace: India aims to build 800–1000 new universities2 and many upwardly mobile foreign students are now attending university, with China’s students already comprising 14 per cent of the international student population. Many English-language universities are setting up new campuses abroad, while some foreign institutions (like Nankai University in Tianjin, China) are attracting cost-conscious Western students with the promise of low prices. And some countries are building up comparative advantage: Australia, with barely 0.3 per cent of the world’s population, boasts 7 per cent of all international students. Britain is in on the game too: in 2010, then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown suggested that in 10 years HE would be ‘Britain’s biggest export’.3 But some universities need to pursue an opposite strategy: becoming more embedded in their local communities and economies, encouraging students to study near home. And some must do both at once. A good example is Adelaide’s University City: Adelaide has imported foreign excellence, including offshoots of Carnegie Mellon and UCL, but has also encouraged its universities to become tightly enmeshed in the regional economy. Other places aiming for a similar result include Guangzhou University City which aims to have 200,000 students and 20,000 academic staff, and Singapore, which is attracting foreign talent to research hubs such as its Biopolis, a state-of-the-art biomedical research centre.

Higher education needs to innovate and evolve both technologies and ‘face to face’ interactions

It has been 40 years since the Open University provided a fully-formed alternative to the traditional university. The University of Phoenix in the US (and expanding) has pioneered a cost-conscious, scalable alternative too (albeit with many critics of the quality of what’s achieved). Online platforms like iTunes U, TED and eduFire now enable everyone to enjoy the best lectures worldwide free of charge. Yet it’s remarkable how little technology has changed university education. Few institutions capitalise on technology to improve teaching, and fewer use it to join up efforts across institutions. The National Center for Academic Transformation in the US incentivised institutions to experiment with new ways of teaching using technology; on average institutions cut costs by 39 per cent with improved pass rates and student satisfaction. However, the very ease of access to technology reinforces how important face-to-face interaction remains. In every creative industry, contrary to expectations, consumption of electronic forms has risen in tandem with consumption of the live direct experience, albeit often with creative new forms of live and face to face experience. Peter Drucker forecast that by the 2020s ‘the big university campuses will be relics’. But his prediction is likely to turn out to be as wrong as similar forecasts that told of the demise of the concert and the football match.

Higher education needs to innovate so that it becomes part of all stages of life

With more mature students (the university population of over-25s increased by 15.3 per cent between 2007–08 and 2008–09),4 we should expect universities to offer courses for mid-career top-ups and for career switches. More programmes like Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative pilot, which ‘challenges the concept of retirement’, may crop up, offering individuals the opportunity to retrain as well as to share their insights with younger students. Perhaps too we will see more integration of learning and work at all stages. This approach has always been the aim of law, medicine, and military academies. The idea that you learn best by applying knowledge and that the best teachers are also practitioners is not inherently alien to higher education, and it is almost certainly becoming more relevant to business, particularly in a service economy. Moreover, the soft skills of collaboration, team work, entrepreneurship and communication are best learned through practice—not just through pedagogy.

HE institutions will need to innovate to cut costs

In the UK, at least, HE institutions will receive less money from government. A drop in revenues need not, however, always mean passing on the cost to students in the form of higher fees. There are many interesting examples of alternative means of cutting costs or offsetting student loans—from South Africa’s CIDA, where students had to help with cooking, cleaning, and maintenance to keep costs down to the widespread US Federal Work Study Programme, which allows students to offset loans by working in campus offices. Attention to costs is also likely to encourage partnerships and sharing. The Scottish Universities Physics Alliance is an early leader, joining up research efforts across institutions to share resources, cultivate areas of excellence and avoid duplication. Another radical example is, a platform for collaboration among Europe’s best researchers, being developed under the banner of Atomium Culture by the creator of a key underlying technology for Google, Massimo Marchiori.

HE institutions will need to innovate to lower barriers to participation

No one knows what the optimal proportion of the population passing through HE is (and of course it depends very much on what HE actually provides and is intended to accomplish). But more dynamic economies probably do require a greater supply of well-educated graduates. The Open University, already a leader in open access to HE, has a promising model for making courses even more accessible; in 2006 it launched OpenLearn, making a growing selection of distance learning course materials available for free access, including downloadable versions for educators to modify, plus free collaborative learning-support tools. Another good example is a project at the National University of the Northwest of Buenos Aires Province (UNNOBA), which, in a response to rapid demographic change, engages people of retirement age who return to study.

These are just a few of a spectrum of innovative options that show how HE could become more diverse, and therefore better able to respond to a range of conflicting pressures. But the oddity of our present HE systems around the world is that there is little attention to innovation in how higher education is organised. There are some good reasons for the conservatism of institutions, for their emphasis on research, and for the cultural and social signifiers of mortar boards, gowns and scrolls. But it’s easy to forget how recent the current forms are. Cardinal Newman—so influential in shaping ideas of the university in the 19th century—believed that training the intellect through the acquisition of universal knowledge was the only role of the university, and he saw research, as Balliol’s Benjamin Jowett put it, as ‘a mere excuse for idleness’ which had no place in the university.

The current forms of the university are certainly not eternal. Yet radical innovation is rare. There are a few exceptions like Aalto University in Finland, or the radically reshaped course structure of Melbourne University. But systematic innovation has never been deliberately cultivated. Yet this is almost certainly what we need now: more deliberate innovation to cultivate a more diverse HE landscape better suited to the complex needs of a modern society.

Geoff Mulgan is currently the Chief Executive of NESTA (National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts) and was previously Chief Executive of the Young Foundation. Some of his previous roles include; Director of Tony Blair’s Strategy Unit, Founder and Director of the think-tank Demos, Chief Adviser to Gordon Brown MP, a lecturer in telecommunications, an investment executive, and a reporter on BBC TV and radio. He is a visiting professor at LSE, UCL and Melbourne University.

NESTA (National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts) is an independent charity with a mission to help people and organisations bring great ideas to life. It does this by providing investments and grants and mobilising research, networks and skills.

Mary Abdo is a Fellow of the Young Foundation living in Mumbai. Previously, Mary was the Venture Lead on the Citizens’ University at the Young Foundation, a new model for training 1% of British citizens in useful skills beneficial to the other 99%. She has a Master of Public Policy from Harvard and a Master of European Politics from the College of Europe, which she attended on a Fulbright.

The Young Foundation brings together insights, innovation and entrepreneurship to meet social needs. It has a track record of over 50 years success with ventures such as the Open University, Which?, the School for Social Entrepreneurs and Healthline (the precursor of NHS Direct). It works across the UK and internationally – carrying out research, influencing policy, creating new organisations and supporting others to do the same, often with imaginative uses of new technology. It now has over 60 staff, working on over 40 ventures at any one time, with staff in New York and Paris as well as London and Birmingham in the UK.

  1. UNESCO (2009): Trends in Global Higher Education: Tracking an Academic Revolution: A Report Prepared for the UNESCO 2009 World Conference on Higher Education. Paris: UNESCO. Available at:
  2. 800 varsities, 35,000 colleges needed in next 10 years: Sibal”. The Hindu. 24 March 2010
  3. Gordon Brown speech, Kings Cross Hub, April 2010
  4. Eason, G. “Record applicants accepted at UK universities in 2009”. BBC News. 21 January 2010

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