Learning in disruption

29 May 2018 by Steven Giannoulis

As our first significant piece of work with Victoria University of Wellington – the undergraduate recruitment campaign for 2019 – hits the market, I have a chance to reflect on everything I’ve learnt about the higher-education sector in the last six months.

I knew it was a sector in change but hadn’t fully realised the extent of the disruption that universities face and how it will fundamentally change everything they say, do and stand for. Building long-lasting communication programmes in this dynamic environment requires bravery, a desire to keep adapting and the on-going questioning of your reason for being. 

The rear view mirror

Historically, universities have been the centre of knowledge and exploration. The place for critical thinkers to advance their wisdom and understanding for the benefit of all mankind. Like the church and government, universities have held a central role in society as a voice for what is right, and what direction we should take. As a pillar of modern civilisation, it’s not a coincidence that the traditional university is characterised by large, solid, classically inspired buildings erected on stable foundations.

For centuries a university education has been seen as the pinnacle of higher learning. Despite being free for many, it’s always been seen as highly valuable. Parents worked hard to send their kids to university, believing they were setting them up for life. A degree enhanced your social standing, perception of your worth and desirability and was (almost) a guarantee of employment. 

Contextual Change

In a rapidly changing world, the role of the university has also evolved. Most universities, including those in New Zealand, have experienced declining numbers, particularly at undergraduate level. Primarily, this is a demographic shift with lower post-baby boomer birth rates and the delay in having children. Each year the pool of Year 13s available is declining, meaning the competition to attract them is growing. 

There is also a plethora of other higher-learning options available to students. Historically, a university degree was the primary option, with polytechnics and other skills-based institutions seen as lesser alternatives. With new accredited learning organisations, and more diverse qualifications being credited as degrees, a world of study possibilities is now available to students.

And affordability has moved to the forefront of student thinking as the cost of a degree, and the university lifestyle, have skyrocketed. Without the certainty of gaining employment, coupled with the change in long-term employment patterns, students are questioning the wisdom of taking on student debt. The financial burden of repayment and the impact on lifestyle, has made the ROI debatable for many, although the new government's free year of study may readdress this equation.

Maybe the single biggest change though is relevance. Students don’t see a university education as necessary as it once was. With technology, all the knowledge in the world is at their finger-tips and being lectured on it seems pointless. Their perception of success and career also differs from previous generations and today’s students don’t see a degree as the only way to succeed. Entrepreneurial mindsets and innovation are the new career currency as students think more about how to change the past than how to apply it.

Maybe the single biggest change though is relevance. Students don’t see a university education as necessary as it once was

Even employers are placing less value on university qualifications. A degree represented a ‘quality mark’ that helped weed out the good prospects. It now signifies an ability to learn knowledge rather than an ability to think and apply. Employers are looking for skills that align with the dynamic reality they face. They seek employees ready to challenge convention, adapt, collaborate and work more flexibly.


To be fair, universities haven’t sat back and done nothing. They’ve felt the water heating around them and have looked to change, albeit slowly. Local universities have successfully leveraged New Zealand’s ‘safe, clean and livable’ reputation and our standing as having many of the world’s top 1% of learning institutions to attract international students. This has helped boost student numbers and helped plug the funding gap.  

Reaching a wider and more diverse audience through technology has also seen most universities embrace online learning. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are now common across the sector, offered by new and traditional players. Just last year, Coventry University launched 50 online degrees which are equivalent to the courses they offer on campus. Harvard launched their remote learning Extension School in partnerships with a number of international universities. 

Massive open online courses are now common across the sector

Universities are also starting to promote the experience of going to university alongside the quality of the programme or the qualifications students can gain. University learning is more than academic, it's a life-changing rite of passage. This is an advantage on-line offerings struggle to compete with and a proposition that appeals to both international and domestic students. This focus on intangible ‘life value’ continues to attract students and has seen a positive impact on student numbers for many universities, Otago University being the obvious example.

Being ‘employment ready’ is probably the single biggest mind-shift that universities have made. Students want this, so do employers, and tertiary institutions have responded. At one extreme this means incorporating technology like Google Glass, Virtual Reality and AI into the curriculum to help student learn the tools of their future jobs. At the other end, it means making the learning more hands-on, vocational based, by working with industry to create job-skills and real problem-solving experiences.

Digital disruption

The disruption we’ve experienced over the 25 years since I was at university is nothing compared to the changes that will happen in the next 25. Universities need to think about how they will continue to adapt and evolve as their role changes. And that’s difficult to do given the rate of change and the uncertainty of what the future holds.

We hear a lot about the acceleration of technology and universities will feel the full impact of this. Automation and the rise of artificial intelligence will lead this transformation. A study completed by PWC called How Ready is University to embrace the future? highlights the urgency of the situation – raising the possibility that the organisations many see as dinosaurs will end up extinct unless they evolve.

A University of Oxford report on the Future of Employment argued that 50% of US jobs are at risk of technological advancement that will severely impact the need for them. Already machines are running production lines, solving complex engineering challenges, providing legal advice and diagnosing medical conditions. Universities taught people to do this work, but the future may mean teaching them to intelligent machines or, at the very least, teaching a small number of people how to programme and populate the machines.

This once dominant role of universities will be further depleted as the digital-era further pervades all aspects of life. But technology will also be an enabler for universities by removing the physical and geographic boundaries that once constrained them. Those universities that embrace technology can reach anyone, anywhere in the world, not just those who live nearby or have the means and willingness to move to the same location as the university. 

Those universities that embrace technology can reach anyone, anywhere in the world

This global reach of education requires universities to think and act more globally, trading on the quality of their programme offer. Already we see universities offering course from other universities, creating the possibility of an institution becoming a gateway for students to create their own learning programme and qualifications, choosing from a variety of the best courses and schools offered anywhere in the world. 

A new model

Beyond technology there are a number of social, demographic and environment changes expected to further impact the university offer. The traditional university model that has remained unchanged for hundreds of years will become radically different. The obvious move is a shift away from fixed time and process to a ‘fixed outcomes’ approach favoured by our information economy. This will drive new funding models, with ‘pay for performance’ structures already becoming even more prevalent, especially in research. 

Institutions will need to become much more agile to appeal to the needs of a hugely diverse target audience wanting a personalised and inclusive experience. This may see many more new courses and support services offered and a more holistic approach to student life and well-being.

The distinction between physical and digital will become blurred as the educational experience incorporates both. Students who have the money and access will be able to make active decisions about what, how and when they move between online and physical interaction with a learning institution. This requires a repositioning of the physical offer, delivering a higher-value experience, that incorporates a strong sense of place. 

The distinction between physical and digital will become blurred as the educational experience incorporates both

Many large global organisations are already creating their own in-house universities, populating them with courses from some of the best schools in the world. The expectation is that this trend towards skills and vocation will continue, with employers asking universities to tailor specific programmes to them. This requires a significant focus shift, away from supply-side – what we teach – to demand-side outcomes - what students need to learn and be able to do.

Another trend that’s already emerging is cross- and inter-disciplinary programmes. Traditionally the different faculties within a university didn’t work well together. The new model, tailored to a wider audience who want tailored choices, will see programmes that span across faculties, allowing students to combine the things they are passionate about with the career-learning they require.

Up for the challenge

With all these drivers of change, I see the university of the future as being global, 24/7, focused on learning rather than teaching, offering students a completely tailored and holistic experience as and where they want it – on-line, physical and a combination of both.

I love a challenge and the dynamic universities environment definitely offers this. Like many organisations, Victoria is having to revisit how they position themselves and how they speak to the changing make-up and needs of their audience. They’re ready to adapt and well-placed to do things differently. It’s an exciting time and I am excited to be able to make my small contribution to their thinking, their positioning and their communications.

Tags: Strategy
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