Will the university business model get turned upside down in five years?

I’ve often wondered whether the Twittering classes represent the majority. To be honest, I don’t think they do – in the same way that the blogging community don’t, or those speakers that enthral us at conferences and TeachMeets. They’re more likely to be the innovators with skins thick enough to take it when people disagree. Although they’re more ‘leading edge’ than ‘average’, they are important as a source of thoughts on the way that things will change in the future.

From three weeks ago, there’s Professor Steven Schwartz’s predictions/advice about the future of Higher Education:

  The online mantra – better, faster, cheaper – is coming to academe and no one knows where it will end. One thing is certain, universities had better start preparing now.  

And the news that UK university applications have fallen by nearly 9% this year, alongside the news that Open Universities Australia is in talks to create a single online ‘experience’ to strengthen their brand at a time of rising competition.

Competency based online degree programmes

So it caught my eye when I read that Northern Arizona University is developing three fully online degree programmes based on a competency based model – aimed mainly at mature students who will pay their fees through blocks of six-monthly subscriptions. Students simply work at their own pace, and can graduate whenever they’re done – releasing the concept of ‘three-year’ or ‘four-year’ degrees. And using a lot less face-to-face academic time than in conventional models. Read more about this whole programme here.

Although programmes like this are unlikely to represent the mainstream in the future, all of these things point towards huge change in higher education. And the question in my mind is how fast the business model of Higher Education will change? Will the nimble institutions create stress on the others to change more quickly than they’d naturally do? Which institutions will be squeezed between a conventional model and a completely new one?

And how fast will this happen? Will it take five years, ten years or twenty years? I’m not wise/foolish enough to make an absolute prediction – but one thing is sure. Change is coming, and it’s coming faster than we’ve been used to.