Governments and universities urged to prepare for an avalanche of change in higher education

The next fifty years could be a golden age for higher education, according to a new report published today by the think tank IPPR. Sir Michael Barber and his colleagues Katelyn Donnelly and Saad Rizvi, authors of the new report, say this will only happen if all the players in the system seize the initiative and act ambitiously.

Lead author, Sir Michael Barber, is Chief Education Adviser at Pearson and former head of Tony Blair’s No10 Delivery Unit. In the new report, “An Avalanche is Coming”, he and his co-authors describe an era of intense pressure on universities driven by globalization, technology, rising student expectations, competition for funding and new disruptive entrants.

Writing in the report, Sir Michael Barber says:

“Our belief is that the models of higher education that marched triumphantly across the globe in the second half of the 20th Century require radical and urgent transformation. Our fear is that the nature of change is incremental and the pace of change too slow.”

Lawrence Summers, former US Treasury Secretary and former President of Harvard, says in a foreword to the report that it “poses profound questions for leaders of higher education.” The report challenges every player in the higher education system to act boldly and urgently.

Governments will need to rethink their regulatory and funding regimes, which were designed for an era when university systems were national. In the era of globalization, governments need to consider big questions, including:

  • How can they fund and support part-time students?
  • Should a student who picks and mixes courses from a range of providers receive funding on the same basis as a full-time student at a traditional institution?
  • How can government incentivise the connection between universities and cities that can stimulate innovation and economic development?
  • As universities compete on a global stage, do governments have a role in ensuring that their domestic universities survive and thrive?

University leaders need to respond to rising student expectations and new ways of learning. They need to seize the opportunities available to them through technology to provide broader, deeper, more accessible, more exciting and more effective higher education.  Leaders will need to have a keen eye toward an ever-increasing group of global competitors and to creating value for their students.

Each university needs to be clear which niches or segments it wants to serve, and what will set its educational experience and impact apart. Multipurpose universities with a combination of a wide range of degrees and a broad research programme are likely to face considerable challenges. The report argues that the traditional university faces the threat of being ‘unbundled’ as it competes with more specialized institutions, online learning systems, training providers and consultancies.

Some will need to specialise in teaching alone – and move away from the traditional lecture to the multi-faced teaching possibilities now available:

  • The elite university
  • The mass university
  • The niche university
  • The local university
  • The lifelong learning mechanism

Citizens need to seize the opportunity to learn and relearn throughout their lives. They need to be ready to take personal responsibility both for themselves and the world around them. Every citizen is a potential student and a potential creator of employment.

There are three fundamental challenges facing systems all round the world:

  1. How can universities and new providers ensure education for employability? The authors cite the excellent employability centre at Exeter University in the UK which offers all students sustained advice and promotes volunteering as well as academic success. Given the rising cost of degrees, the threat to the market value of degrees and the sheer scale of growth and unemployment this is a vital and immediate challenge.
  2. How can the link between cost and quality be broken? At present, the authors claim, global rankings of universities in effect equate all inputs with output. They put a premium on research volumes which have little or no impact on the student experience or student outcomes. Only universities which have build up vast research capacity and low student-teacher ratios can come out on top in global rankings. Yet in the era of modern technology, when students can individually and collectively create knowledge themselves, outstanding quality without high fixed costs is plausible and desirable. New entrants are effectively barred from entry and the authors argue that a new university ranking focused on learner outcomes is required.
  3. How does the entire learning ecosystem need to change to support alternative providers and the future of work?  The authors cite examples of a new breed of learning providers that emphasize learning by practice and mentorship. It argues that systematic changes are necessary to embed these successful companies on a wider scale.

Notes to editors

The new report - An Avalanche Is Coming: higher education and the revolution ahead – is by Sir Michael Barber, Katelyn Donnelly and Saad Rizvi and will be published on Monday 11th March.

The report will be available at and

Media contacts

Richard Darlington, IPPR, 07525 481 602,

Martin O’Donovan, Pearson,