(R)evolution in higher education

By Louis Coiffait –

Are universities currently experiencing an unprecedented volume, velocity and variety of change? And if so how are they reacting now and how should they react in the future? What are the key transformations taking place and are they revolutionary or evolutionary? This editorial reflects on these broad questions through the lessons learned from the articles in this edition, as well as from others across the wider Blue Skies collection and beyond.

In the first fifteen months of the project so far it has been a pleasure and a privilege to help edit 64 different Blue Skies articles, each containing new ideas about the future of higher education. The authors have varied hugely, from country experts across Asia Pacific, to the UK Minister for Higher Education (the only author to write twice), as well as leading academics, student leaders and policy commentators. As one might expect the chosen topics have been highly diverse, and where there has been overlap the opinions expressed have often conflicted. Yet in many ways this broad and mixed range of perspectives somehow epitomises higher education itself, as highlighted in Martin Hughes’ article for the 2011 edition about the inevitability (and value) of contradictions within the sector. Although typically the diversity inherent within higher education is seen as a strength, some of this years’ authors call for more coherent action at times, especially in the current context of economic duress. Professor Ken Starkey of Nottingham University Business School argues that universities need a new narrative, one that places themselves, rather than banks, as the true engines of growth. Mark Leach of the Wonkhe blog argues for a braver sector, one that encourages policy-makers to consider higher education with a longer-term view and more holistically– within its local, regional, national and international context – so that new policies are better aligned with support from the public and those working in the sector. And Liam Burns, of the UK’s National Union of Students (NUS), urges the whole sector to reframe itself, beyond tired old false-dichotomies, by focussing on the idea of ‘tertiary’ education, encompassing all of the lifelong learning that comes after compulsory schooling. Such ‘big ideas’ are exactly why the Blue Skies project was started, helping reframe the entire debate about higher education by providing new lenses for analysis. But these three examples also reinforce the sense of strength that comes with such a diverse sector by showing how resourceful and bold it can be, even if contradictorily, they are each calling for a more united front. In addition, it is always interesting to discuss ‘change’ and higher education, as it both proactively drives change (through thought-leadership and cutting-edge research) at the same time as it reacts to it.

So, bearing in mind these ideas of powerful diversity and leading/reacting to change, the rest of this Editorial will briefly attempt to look at four significant (and interrelated) ‘changes’ that crop up time and again in Blue Skies articles, reflecting their relevance to the wider sector. The four key issues are; funding, quality, fairness and technology. In each case a cursory attempt will be made to summarise what is happening, how the sector has reacted, how it might react in the future, and thedegree to which this is revolutionary or evolutionary.


The global trend for higher education cost-sharing mix is changing, with the burden overwhelmingly shifting from governments to parents and students (and to some extent businesses and donors e.g. see Professor Robert Lethbridge’s article). The UK has just seen one of the biggest such shifts, despite already spending considerably less as a proportion of GDP than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average, with levels of public expenditure only higher than one other OECD country, Indonesia. David Willetts, the UK Minister for Higher Education, has defended these developments twice now in Blue Skies. In this edition he argues that the recent tripling of tuition fees is the only sustainable funding option in the long-term, and that it is attracting significant interest from other countries. He believes that competition from new providers and the publishing of more information about courses will together help empower students, helping institutions to focus on the experience that they offer. Both the Minister and Professor Lethbridge also discuss the long-term autonomy that can come from non-public funding sources, though the reality of this is contested by some such as Professor Peter Scott.

Overall, global expenditure on higher education has increased significantly in recent years. From 2000 to 2008, expenditure per student by OECD tertiary education institutions increased by 14 percentage points on average, after having remained stable between 1995 and 2000. The UK is currently spending slightly more than that average at c. £9,800 p.a., a figure that has increased at a faster rate than the OECD average over the last decade. As Professor Sir Tim O’Shea argues, this makes the UK sector relatively efficient, with lower ‘transaction costs’ meaning that a high proportion of (the relatively low) funding is spent on UK students. However it is unclear if this trend will continue given the ongoing economic woes of many developed nations and a renewed focus on HE costs.

A range of different factors explain these changes to funding trends but the main issue is the differential growth rates between the developing and developed nations, with many of the latter choosing austerity as the route out of recession. However, in many nations there is also a backdrop of increasingly market-friendly liberal (or neo-liberal) economic policies, allowing for the blurring of public and private models, non- and for- profit. There has been significant growth in partnerships with the private sector– both with multinationals and niche, high-value SMEs.

Two articles in this collection also talk about the economic benefits of different delivery modes. Although they are concerned that higher fees will put many off, Professor Claire Callender and David Wilkinson highlight the benefits of part-time study, including better financial returns and international competitiveness. Meanwhile Roxanne Stockwell discusses the pros and cons of two-year degrees, concluding that it seems worthwhile for some providers to experiment with these if they can ensure no dip in quality.

So, do these changes in higher education funding constitute revolution or evolution? Those in the UK may seem to fear the former, but as it turns out the pace of change hasn’t survived the politics within the Coalition Government, with the last HE White Paper now unlikely to ever result in a Parliamentary Bill. Tripled student loans also raise fears of over-exposure by the public finances, with student number controls being the primary method of defence. Institutions are responding in a variety of ways, with some slashing staff and courses. Meanwhile fewer mature students are applying, with applications for arts and humanities also down. As yet it’s hard to reach a firm conclusion but it’s clear that there are unprecedented levels of uncertainty, hampering the ability of both families and institutions to plan for the future.


A couple of familiar dichotomies arise in this edition under the broad banner of quality; one over existing institutions vs private for-profit providers, and another over a general humanities education vs greater employer involvement. On the first issue Andrew McGettigan picks apart recent UK policy to highlight the risks of private for-profit providers that free-ride on the wider academic community. By contrast Carl Lygo of BPP lists the benefits of new private providers; bringing the latest technology and newlevels of flexibility. On the second issue, AC Grayling reiterates the importance of a general humanities education for dealing with an increasingly complex world. Graham Spittle and Carl Gilleard take quite different angles, emphasising the importance of strong business links and more employer-focussed degree classifications respectively.

The role of private providers and employers are hot-button issues all around the world, especially when finances are tight and competitiveness is key. Despite a backlash in many quarters, these trends are likely to continue. But are they really revolutionary? They certainly are not new, harking back to fundamental questions about what university is for and who it serves. As ever the answers are not simple, with the sector serving a multitude of masters and purposes. The key indicators to watch are the course choices of applicants, the destinations of those who graduate from different institutions and courses, as well as softer measures such as wellbeing. The importance of recent changes will only truly become apparent by monitoring these over time, with revolution seemingly feared and hoped for in equal measure by different stakeholders. Personally I’m confident that the sector will continue to maintain a focus on high quality provision and that this will help dictate the pace and degree of change – rather than the reverse.


Social mobility and fairness also remain key issues in HE, especially in the UK. To some the sector is a launch-pad that enables the disadvantaged to improve their situation. For others it is an elitist ivory tower that cements advantage over time. Some claim the gates are being opened wider with more funding than ever for disadvantaged applicants, while others see a sector that badly needs to do better. Tessa Stone of the Bridge Group argues that the guidance offered to applicants is patchy and often poor, with variable and confusing admissions policies that rarely make enough use of valuable contextual data. John Holmwood posits that recent changes in the UK will only embed inequality further, while John Widdowson demands a more holistic system that incorporates mature students, lifelong learning and portfolio careers. John Craig and Dominic Shellard take a different angle, using the example of De Montford University to show how better local engagement can benefit staff, students and communities.

The typically widening socio-economic gaps, both between and within countries, are a real cause for concern. It is clear to me that higher education has to play its part and can do more than it has to date. Arguments about excellence and global competition do not seem sufficient if fairness is forgotten. Similarly, placing the blame at the door of schools and pre-university education feels like a cop-out. Some warn than the latest UK reforms risk reversing the recent gains made in widening participation, whereas others see this as a necessary re-balancing after an inefficient dilution of the HE offer. Given high rates of unemployment in many nations this issue is only likely to increase in importance, though sadly the true revolution that many hope for currently feels unaffordable.


To many it is technology that might hold the key to solving the other three issues. Sarah Porter reminds us that the technological revolution in HE is only just beginning, with far more change on the way. Both teaching staff and students are becoming better connected than ever before, making both learning and researching an increasingly social enterprise, taking place far beyond traditional lecture halls and labs. A key outcome of these developments will be a huge increase in the data produced by higher education, in ever more open and accessible formats. This will include linked data about research, learning resources, the curriculum taught, assessment, achievement and performance. Although we are currently data rich and analysis poor this situation will begin to change, as new technologies, systems and training help us capitalise on this wealth of data in ways we cannot yet imagine. Learning will become more personalised and achieve better outcomes than ever before – as hinted at by some of the early studies into the ‘flipped classrooms’ and open resource initiatives taking place at Harvard, MIT, Stanford and others. There is also going to be a boom in ‘virtual campuses’, as we become more accustomed to learning together virtually, not just in-person. These changes will not only have an impact on accountability by informing policy and practice with better evidence, but will allow for real progress in terms of efficiency and innovation. Despite some fears of a two-tier system, this has the potential to dramatically improve access and equity, offering high quality higher education for all, in a cost-effective way. Although hyperbole is rife at the moment as we seem to be entering an #edtech bubble, it is technology that promises to ultimately be the most revolutionary change for higher education.

Hopefully, this brief discussion of the above four ‘major changes’ taking place across higher education helps to broaden perspectives and places the articles within this volume within a wider context. I would argue that universities are facing a unique confluence of trends at the same time, creating an unprecedented ‘inflection point’. At times the hype of revolution will not filter through to reality, but it is clear that debating these issues is vital as the decisions made now will determine future success. Hopefully this new collection provides a platform for that debate, stimulating new thinking about the future of HE.


Boxall, M. (2012) MOOCs: a massive opportunity for higher education, or digital hype? The Guardian, 8 August. Available at: http://goo.gl/IqEJl

British Council, The (2012) Going Global 2012: The shape of things to come: Higher education global trends and emerging opportunities to 2020. The British Council. Available at: http://goo.gl/ibeJq

Leckhart, S. and Cheshire, T. (2012) University just got flipped: how online video is opening up knowledge to the world, Wired Magazine, 16 April. Available at: http://goo.gl/psgqu.

O’Shea, Tim (2010) Efficiency and effectiveness, Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and Joint Information Systems Committee ( JISC), House of Commons Seminar, 21 April. Available at: http://goo.gl/3YYYK.

OECD (2011) Education at a Glance 2011: OECD Indicators. Paris: Organisation of Economic Co-Operation and Development. Available at: http://goo.gl/SouOb.

Sanyal, B. and Johnstone, D. B. (2011) International trends in the public and private financing of higher education, Prospects: Quarterly Review of Comparative Education, 41: 151–75. Available at: http://goo.gl/G0eM5.

Scott, P. (2012) Following Browne, the only ‘market’ we have in education is one of deceit, The Guardian, 6 August. Available at: http://goo.gl/m8tbC.

UNESCO (2010) Global education Digest: Comparing Education Statistics Across the World, UNESCO Institute of Statistics. Available at: http://goo.gl/cBrq6.

Louis Coiffait is Head of Research in the Pearson Think Tank. You can follow him on Twitter at @LouisMMCoiffait or read his blog at http://thepearsonthinktank.com/category/blogs/ louis-coiffait/ for education policy comment, research and analysis. He is the Editor of Blue Skies, a growing collection of new thinking about the future of higher education. He also researches a range of other topics including enterprise and entrepreneurship education, careers services and open education data. He is Chair of Governors at an outstanding school in Hackney and runs the social enterprise www.workandteach.co.uk.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.