The perfect storm for higher education – what should be done?

It is probable that one of the large accountancy firms would not be seen by some in the higher education community as the obvious source of sympathetic advice. Still, it may be useful to consider some of the findings recently published by Deloitte about the risks and pressures facing global higher education. The report suggests that universities are facing a perfect storm, caused by the coming together of reduced budgets, difficulties in recruiting staff and students and growing competition. One could add to this the acceleration of bureaucratic regulation, public hostility towards the academic profession, and scepticism about quality and standards.

Against this backdrop, Deloitte asked education specialists from the firm’s offices in seven countries to make recommendations that might lead to a revival of the fortunes of higher education. Some of the resulting suggestions are not ground-breaking. For example, the report recommends that universities should ‘explore new revenue opportunities’, which is undoubtedly good advice but hardly new. But there are some comments which may be useful, such as the recommendation that universities need to learn to pursue strategic priorities rather than just behave opportunistically, or that universities should look at ways of improving environmental performance both as a strategic goal and as a contribution towards cutting costs.

But where the report is probably most useful is in its emphasis on the need for higher education institutions to get better at adapting to changing circumstances quickly and finding ways of making these changes work to their advantage. It is also good that this major accounting firm is showing interest in and support for global higher education. In these rather troubling times, universities need supporters.

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5 Comments on “The perfect storm for higher education – what should be done?”

  1. anna notaro Says:

    Deloitte is not the only one to predict trouble of course, many within universities have been saying so for a while, albeit from completely different perspectives. American professor Martha Nussbaum, in a long piece aptly entitled ‘Educating for profit, educating for freedom’
    http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2011/08/19/3297258.htm
    speaks of ‘a crisis that goes largely unnoticed… a worldwide crisis in education.’ Crucially if the this trend continues, she argues ‘nations all over the world will soon be fulfilling Rabindranath Tagore’s dire prediction, producing generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements.’
    Some of the effects of the crisis are that ‘The humanities and the arts will now be forced to become salesmen for a product, and they will be able to justify their contribution and their claim to funds only if they can demonstrate a direct, short-term economic impact. Since that time, several philosophy departments have been completely closed, some merged with social science, and all humanities programs severely curtailed.’
    This seems to reflect exactly what the Deloitte’s report advices universities to do: ‘scrap unpopular programs or at point 7 of their list:
    ‘Link to outcomes – Vocational courses are catching up with traditional universities’ records on graduate employment and salaries. Universities will need to re-focus on vocational education, closely aligned to employers’ needs and students’ long term employment.’
    Of course the type advice coming from Deloitte is not surprising after all their are an *accountancy firm*, their focus is on business (professor Stefan Collini in a recent piece in the London Review of Books has provided a sophisticated critique of how ‘Since the 1970s…official discourse has become increasingly colonised by an economistic idiom, which is derived not strictly from economic theory proper, but rather from the language of management schools, business consultants and financial journalism.’
    http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n16/stefan-collini/from-robbins-to-mckinsey)
    My personal opinion, for what matters, is that debate about the future of HE is not immune from that tendency towards radicalization that affects other aspects of our public/political sphere as well. At moments like this it might be useful, (and particularly interesting for Scottish based observers/actors) to look back at history not necessarily to look for a kind of complacent, self-confirming narrative. Nussbaum begins her argument by referencing John Stuart Mill’s inaugural address as Rector of St. Andrews University – because, as she says ‘the issues that concern me are not parochial American issues, but have been recognized as central to British higher education for a long time, even if in dissent.’ I would add that the issues in questions are not just American or British, they are truly global…

  2. Al Says:

    Friends!!! Billable by the hour???
    Some interesting points.

    “Link to outcomes – Vocational courses are catching up with traditional universities’ records on graduate employment and salaries. Universities will need to re-focus on vocational education, closely aligned to employers’ needs and students’ long term employment.”

    Here is the interesting one for me…
    Was there ever an original focus here on vocational education?

    Plus the model of taking an 18 year old and sending them to university to come out as management is gone the way of the family business.
    May be worthwhile thinking about a new model of education where people in their late 20’s or 30’s with experience of actually doing something profitable are facilitated with the management education and training when they actually need it.


  3. What Deloitte seem to be looking for in Universities is “Agility”. Not something that you might associate with them. In a competitive environment dinosaurs will be replaced by smaller more agile creatures. Perhaps, the government should just do what it can to create such an environment (measuring outcomes of course) and let them to their own devices. However, might would mean that a few of the dinosaurs will have to go extinct.

  4. jpg Says:

    The unexamined assumptions of some of the comments here are absurd. What, exactly, are the educational advantages — in either the personal or public domains — or ‘agility’ (whatever that actually /means/) in any university system? What are the advantages of universities defining the educational choices they provide on the basis of ‘popularity’ (whatever that /means/)? Clearly there is no simple relationship between choice and either public utility or the intellectual substance and rigour of a given programme of study. Some programmes — in the sciences no less than the humanities — will never attract large numbers of students. Why indeed should they? But it’s unclear why scrapping them altogether might therefore /always/ be beneficial or advisable. Why would it be better for the state or private commercial interests to support a learning and research environment in the UK for serious-minded adults in which universities compete to provide an increasingly limited range of increasingly unstable options based on choices made by 18 year-olds? What special authority does any single business have to give advice concerning education — which much self-evidently operate on the basis of a /broader/ intellectual foundation than can be provided /by/ the specific, changing needs of business interests. Should the parameters of professional scholarship be defined by the tastes of school leavers? Why should one expect intellectual monocultures to be better for business than intellectual and educational biodiversity? Freedom of choice, and the rich intellectual harvest it brings simply cannot be served in the long run on the terms suggested here. Universities always need to be reactive, and in terms of the learning experience they provide (if not their structural arrangements at the institutional level) they /are/. But maintenance of the professional expertise and skill sets on which high level research and teaching thrive — and on which the wider social impacts of university scholarship in any domain depends — cannot be guaranteed by making universities slaves to the shifting mores and fashions of young adults and the shorter-term strategic interests of business. The ‘profitability’ of learning at the personal and public level cannot be defined exclusively by bottom lines, without diminishing the extraordinary returns the education can and does offer. Quite simply, education is the main tool in the kit for making societies that /work/.

  5. nanotemple Says:

    At present the challenges facing higher ed are not necessarily a new situation. Academe has long resisted the encroachment of anything remotely smelling of the “vocational” despite the growth of engineering, medicine, and other applied fields. Whether it was Eliot’s tenure as Harvard’s president in the 1860’s where he professionalized medicine and law programs or the establishment of the requirements known as the Core Curriculum, universities have scoffed at vocational approaches to higher ed time and again, only to adopt these principles when enrollment seriously started to flag.

    Changes are on the way, whether it means the concept of tenure disappears or the educational core is adjusted to include more strictly vocational experience as a part of the undergrad curriculum. Research appropriations are dwindling as are state/federal appropriations, a possible area where private sector interests will become more entrenched as the need for new revenue continues to grow. In the end academe must come to grips with the question, “What are we selling?”…an experience, a credential, entry into a vocation…Make no bones about it, the higher education enterprise is just that, an enterprise that must constantly balance the desire to fulfill the mission of higher education while still bringing in the $ and prestige.


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