22 January 2015

Our new report Connecting universities: future models of higher education, launched today at our Global Education Dialogue in London, examines the massive ‘open market’ that higher education in South Asia has become.

Based on interviews with education leaders across the region, the research finds that new providers are looking to ‘unbundle’ universities as a business model, putting pressure on institutions and regulatory frameworks to find new and sustainable ways of working: "a business model that was designed when universities were the guardians of information now looks seriously outdated . . . the role of institutional education will endure. However, with higher education costs going up, the learning model with extensive support staff and hundreds of degree courses needs to change to avoid becoming irrelevant."

Interviewees stated that innovative approaches to online delivery methods in South Asia are succeeding, despite the barriers. In their view, the only thing holding back global ambitions in South Asia are the region’s regulatory bodies and the complexity of its higher education system. In terms of India, interviewees also stressed the friction between the country’s global ambitions and local realities, and expressed pessimism about the challenge facing higher education reform.

As well as the sheer growth in demand, it is the changing lifestyles of students, driven by technological advances that are pushing the need for wholesale reforms in the region. “Our new generation of students are completely relaxed about online education - after all, they communicate online, they access entertainment online, they do everything online. For them, non-digital systems seem fairly antiquated,” said Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, a not-for-profit provider of massive open online courses (MOOCs) founded at MIT and Harvard in 2012. “Education has not changed that much in hundreds of years. But the client base of learners has completely evolved.”

Pakistan’s goal is to improve access to education from its current five per cent to 15 per cent by 2020, and is looking at involvement from the private sector to support access. “The acceptability of online education was not much appreciated in Pakistan before, but slowly things are moving and it is becoming a reality” said Dr Mukhtar Ahmed, Chairman of Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission. “It is already at our doorstep and bearing in mind the shortage in faculties and the shortage of resources [in Pakistan] I think this might be the only solution.”

Leaders interviewed for the report believed that MOOCs were a transitional phase towards new university models, augmenting rather than replacing the traditional approach. Most said that they gave universities an opportunity to brand themselves globally, while testing new teaching methods and providing a gateway to fee-paying postgraduate degree courses. “They’re a kind of experiment with the idea of making courses free, then seeing how many people will come and what the possibilities are,” said Mike Sharples, Professor of Educational Technology at The Open University in the UK.

The trend towards Transnational education (TNE) is also explored. There has been a marked growth in the last decade in TNE activities in Asia with local education systems in countries such as India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan unable to meet booming demand for university degrees. That has seen rising numbers of students opting to study in their home nation: the number of students undertaking a UK higher education award has grown from around 200,000 in 2008 to 600,000 in 20139 while the number of students registered in Australian offshore programmes reached 85,000 in 2013, up from 70,000 in 2007.

The report concludes that “the future for universities is very much ‘open’ - as national borders vanish and more disruptive technologies emerge, all universities will have to work harder to demonstrate their distinctiveness and value”.

See also