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Is tomorrow’s university system already emerging?

  • 11 June 2021
  • By Ian Matthias and Mike Boxall

This blog was kindly contributed by Ian Matthias, Partner and Mike Boxall, Higher Education Expert at PA Consulting. On Twitter you can find Mike @MikeBoxall1.

These are incredibly challenging times for universities, both individually and as a national system. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many providers were struggling with precarious finances and falling enrolments. No one expects either pressure to get any easier, with threats of future fee cuts, recruitment caps and course controls looking increasingly real. Added to this is the growing burden of new regulatory impositions and negative political and media messaging around quality, value and campus culture. It would not be surprising to see universities responding to this barrage of blows by hunkering down, cutting costs and hoping for better times ahead, as indeed some already have. But, as we have observed before, universities have proved remarkably resilient in responding to supposedly existential threats in the past, and there are encouraging signs that they will do so again.

The imperatives of the COVID-19 crisis have led many universities to discover hitherto unexpected talents and capabilities for introducing radical innovations in unprecedented timescales. New modes of online teaching, assessments and student support that would previously have taken years if they happened at all, were introduced across the sector in days and weeks. This was despite campuses being closed and staff working remotely. As they and we emerge into the post-COVID-19 world, we are already seeing universities using the momentum of crisis-led innovations to rethink their future public roles and how they are delivered.

There is a revolution brewing across our sector, building on four genuinely transformational ideas.

Universities for Others

First coined by Professor Ron Barnett and picked up by others since, this idea challenges universities to become much more outward looking and deeply connected to the various communities that they serve. It entails a shift in university mindsets and strategic goals, away from peer group rankings and institutional advantages, to asking ‘who are we here to serve?’, ‘what do they need from us?’ and ‘how can we best meet those needs?’.

For many universities, the idea of them existing and working ‘for others’ represents a return to their founding purposes. Most universities were established to serve the needs of their local communities and industries through successive phases of social and economic disruptions, roles that are even more relevant to the challenges of the current Fourth Industrial Revolution. The Civic Universities movement is one fast-growing manifestation of this re-imagination of the public university, with over 50 universities committing to Civic University Agreements developed in partnership with local government and other institutions to address priority needs in their area.

Local Learning Ecosystems

The second (and closely related) big idea emerging across the sector is a shift from the traditional institution-centric identity of universities to working within the multi-faceted and mutually interdependent systems that determine the health and prosperity of localities, industries and communities. There is growing recognition that social equity and economic prosperity depend on place-based problem solving.

This is achieved through well-orchestrated and open sharing of knowledge, information and resources within open ecosystems of civic, business, financial and educational partners. The OECD has heralded this collaborative movement as a new Economy of Learning, in contrast to the proprietary and transactional nature of exchanges in the 20th century Knowledge Economy. Universities have vital roles to play in these local learning ecosystems, whether as orchestrators of multi-partner collaborations – such as the Learning Family of employers, education providers and civic bodies brought together by London South Bank University – or as key participants in city-region development strategies – like the Greater Manchester Higher network of universities, colleges and schools within the Northern Powerhouse programme.

Knowledge and Learning Enterprises

Underlying and potentially undermining moves towards a more engaged, open and personalised university system is the question of how institutions make sustainable livings in this very different world. That is especially true with the viability of their current business models looking so precarious. Inter-university competition for capped student fees and rationed grants has already left many struggling to cover rising fixed costs, with profits from international students and residential provision (despite some refunds this year) saving some from insolvency. There is a view that this business model is not sustainable and that universities need to expand their sources of revenue to reduce their dependence on zero-sum or shrinking funding streams.

Professor Michael Crow, Vice-Chancellor of Arizona State University, has proposed that universities should reconceive themselves as ‘public knowledge enterprises’, creating collective shared value within networks of academia, business, government agencies and civic bodies. The economic challenge for enterprising universities is to ‘do well by doing good’, which will entail a shift in mindsets. That means moving away from regarding institutions as a set of cost centres to be funded to seeing themselves as value-creation engines, sharing in the diversity of financial benefits they generate with and for others: ranging from enhanced lifetime earnings to profitable innovations to more prosperous communities.

Digitally-enabled People Power

The most visible impact of the COVID-19 crisis on universities has been the extraordinarily rapid increase in the use of digital technologies to deliver educational and operational services remotely and at scale. Hitherto, the uptake of innovative technologies had been relatively tentative, contradicting predictions that digital alternatives would inevitably supplant expensive and inflexible campus provision. Universities continued to invest much more in new buildings than in technology, while student demand for online study, although growing, remained much below that for traditional face-to-face provision.

The experiences of the past year have overturned many past arguments against digital provision, showing that online delivery can work for many students and that universities can operate effectively in a remote environment. But the COVID-19 experience has also highlighted the limits of digital as substitutes for the essential interpersonal aspects of learning provided by face-to-face relationships, both with teaching staff and with student peers. Universities are recognising that their essential distinctiveness and value depends heavily on in-person learning and social experiences, made more accessible, flexible and impactful by the underlying power of digital technologies.

In our experience, university leaders recognise the importance and potential of the four future-facing ideas outlined here and many can demonstrate ways in which they are already exploring and demonstrating them. However, in most cases, the examples of new approaches and ways of working are confined to specific areas of the university and impact only at the margins of established business-as-usual. The challenge now is to harness the momentum of COVID-19-induced innovations to embed the principles of relevant, open, enterprising and digitally-empowered learning to build a more diverse, socially-engaged and resilient community of universities.  

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  1. Great article. I think one of the things hampering progress is the continuing influence of the mainstream rankings. These measure ‘success’ using such a narrow range of criteria, yet many institutions doggedly chase them as an indicator of prestige / quality. This can lead to isomorphic strategies and dilute institutional distinctiveness.
    I noticed in the course of my recent research one Russell Group university strategic plan which states that ‘this is not about league tables but about the real contributions we make to the world around us. It is, after all, our deeds that define us.’
    This may reflect the shift in university mindsets and strategic goals that you describe – ‘away from peer group rankings and institutional advantages’. It is to be hoped that we see more of this.

  2. Mike Boxall says:

    Thanks, Vicky. Completely agree!

  3. jason chuah says:

    Thanks for the article. One of the problems is how league tables have become a most profitable and influence generating gimmick for commercial and non-commercial organisations. The many with these vested interests will fight to perpetuate the maintenance of a very narrowly defined (and defined by them) criteria of success and achievements.
    For institutions genuinely committed to making real contributions to society and the wider world, until the rankings are properly ignored and given the short shrift, their achievements secured would largely go unrewarded and unrecognised.

  4. Mike Boxall says:

    Hi Jason. The distortive tyranny of research and reputation based league tables has certainly worked against mission-led diversity for many years. There are signs that this is changing, as noted in Vicky’s survey and in things like the THE’s impact rankings. One factor will be what happens to international recruitment post-COVID, as many universities claim they must play the rankings game to retain eligibility for overseas government accreditation.

  5. Vicky Lewis says:

    Mike – your final point was raised by some of my interviewees and it’s a knotty problem. If overseas governments use the global rankings as a filter for scholarship eligibility / recognition / partnership opportunities, UK universities (at least those that stand a chance of making the cut) can use this to help justify a continued fixation on their position in the rankings. There has also been much written about the role of global rankings in imposing western / Global North perceptions of what constitutes ‘excellence’ on institutions around the world, working in very different contexts.

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