Knowledge & Insight

Four factors disrupting the higher education sector

Tue 26 November 2019

The UK’s higher education institutions have faced a variety of challenges over the past decade, and the response from leaders has been highly innovative and broadly effective. Yet there are four key factors set to drive further change in the sector.

Students as informed consumers

The government’s Longitudinal Education Outcomes initiative (LEO) provided a clear link between choice of university and undergraduate degree, and employment and earnings potential – giving prospective students the ability to make decisions based upon sound data. Yet this new insight also resulted in students considering more carefully the potential return on their investment in higher education. Has it led to some students taking a different path? This isn’t known, yet what is clear is that the ability to make information-led decisions has improved the effectiveness of the higher education marketplace. Students acting as informed consumers are likely to very different decisions – it may cause them to review their intended career path, and these decisions are likely to impact providers’ programme offerings, and even government’s industrial strategy.

Pressure on profits

As higher education continues to evolve into a more market-driven sector, so the profit margins of traditional players are coming under pressure. As they seek to compete in an increasingly globalised marketplace, universities recognise they must develop state-of-the art teaching and learning facilities that will attract talented students from around the world. Yet with pricing caps in place in the UK, the cost of these world-leading technical facilities must be balanced by a reduction in costs elsewhere – and squeezing budgets allocated to academic staff is often regarded as an all-too-easy quick win. We are already seeing the impact of this in the growth of part-time academic roles, but any reduction in the investment in high-calibre academic talent cannot be part of any long-term solution.

Greater student choice

In a global marketplace for higher education, UK students have greater choice of course and provider than ever before. But they have another choice too – to avoid the burden of debt that a degree will bring, by opting to study and work on a degree apprenticeship. A partnership between employers, universities and professional bodies, degree apprenticeships enable students to combine part-time work with part-time study. And although they can take up to six years to complete, students can earn while they learn – which is becoming an increasingly attractive option. Plus, according to the latest data, degree apprenticeship graduates have a better chance than traditional graduates of gaining employment when they complete their studies.

An evolving workplace

The UK workplace is evolving more rapidly than ever. Traditional roles requiring traditional skills are disappearing fast. Many functions are becoming automated, and many more are being ‘offshored’. So the traditional model of going to university, gaining skills and a qualification, then utilising those skills throughout one’s working life, is becoming outdated and redundant. As change accelerates throughout all sectors, the ability to continually update skills is becoming an essential asset, and life-long learning is becoming the norm.  As universities increasingly recognise this fact, they are striving to equip their undergraduates will high-quality transferrable skills. Yet there is a large proportion of the existing workforce that will require up-skilling if they are to continue to make a strong economic contribution as our workplaces continue to evolve.

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