Change is Inevitable – It’s Time to Disrupt the Higher Education System

Change is Inevitable – It’s Time to Disrupt the Higher Education System

…I believe that the university sector will experience major, and long overdue, disruption.

Despite the major disruption that other sectors have experienced in recent years, the education sector has been slow to respond and universities and their teaching methods have remained remarkably unchanged for decades. Perhaps they are right not to try to change too much, after all, universities have existed as places of learning for hundreds of years and the demand for a university education has never been higher. In the UK, for example, according to the Office of National Statistics1, the number of students has almost doubled since 1992, and now nearly 1 in 3 young people are in full time education.

Our world is changing more rapidly now than at any point in history. Fifty years ago Gordon Moore, the founder of Intel, stated that computer power would double every two years and today the pace of change in technology still shows no signs of slowing. Now, when I walk along the corridors of the institution where I studied for my first degree, interactive whiteboards have replaced blackboards; if students miss a lecture, they don’t have to borrow their classmate’s notes, as everything is online. But the changes are on the surface; technology to support learning and teaching has been embraced and every institution has its own virtual learning environment (VLE), but they still teach in groups, they have classrooms and lecture theatres, the students are arranged by academic discipline, taught by a recognisable hierarchy of lecturers and professors. A degree still takes three or four years and the academic year is short, organised by semesters and punctuated by formal assessments and exams. The undergraduate degree has really not changed very much at all in the years since I graduated.

Meanwhile, the pace of change outside universities has never been faster. According to a recent report by the Institute for the Future2, 85% of the jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t even been invented yet. That’s only 13 years away, and yet how can we even begin to imagine what that might look like? The pace of change in my own lifetime has been incredible and I could not have anticipated the jobs of today that didn’t exist when I graduated. Unsurprisingly, many of these are technology related, e.g. mobile phone app developers, but some are surprisingly low tech too, resulting from big changes in the way we live and work. The gig economy doesn’t just refer to Uber drivers; according to a recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute3(MGI), almost 30% of the working age population in the US and Europe are independent workers.

Beyond the realms of higher education, the pace of technological change has contributed to the decline of traditional jobs, but it has also created many opportunities. People are now employed in roles and in industries that simply did not exist just ten years ago, and can expect to experience several career changes in their working lives. The impact of the rapidly changing workplace on the future career prospects of our students can be hard for teaching staff to recognise; however, when so little has changed in the way that universities themselves operate.

So how can we prepare our students for a future that we cannot predict, in a world of rapid change? Traditional education provides an essential foundation of technical knowledge, but with such a fast pace of change that is not enough. According to the World Economic Forum4, the skills we need today are entrepreneurial: complex problem solving abilities, creativity, cognitive flexibility. Our young people need to learn new ways to work, and we need to support them by giving them the opportunities to shape the future. For some that will be starting their own businesses, but for many it will be using these skills and outlook to change the way the organisations that employ them operate.

How can universities prepare young people for uncertain futures? Will we see an end to the traditional teaching methods and degree courses or will they still exist, but as part of a much more diverse learning environment? Just as with any complex challenge, there isn’t a single solution and universities will need to embrace new ways of working in order to remain relevant. Here are some of my predictions.

Universities will continue to teach in subject disciplines, for at least part of any degree. Students will still need to gain the fundamental knowledge of their chosen discipline, just as everyone needs numeracy and literacy skills.

  • The acquisition of knowledge will not be the main purpose. Universities will provide an environment where students learn to be collaborative, creative and flexible, and to apply their knowledge in diverse ways.
  • There will be more cross-disciplinary courses and projects that will bring students studying diverse subjects together, like healthcare and engineering. This aims to empower students to respond to major societal challenges such as aging populations.
  • The building infrastructure will change, providing more flexible spaces for new ways of collaborative working.
  • Businesses will work much more closely with universities, bringing an external perspective and applied knowledge and playing a major role in student education via new schemes such as graduate level apprenticeships5.
  • Universities will embrace flexible, life-long learning, moving away from the 3 or 4 year first degree.

We cannot say for sure how our universities will look in 2040, but people will always need to learn, and the rapid pace of change makes lifelong learning even more important. Universities must enable students at any stage of life to grasp the opportunities of the future, whatever they may be.

If they get it right, universities will continue to be centres of knowledge exchange for centuries to come; creative, exciting places where people from many organisations and businesses can come together to collabo- rate and to challenge each other to tackle society’s challenges.


Office of National Statistics (2016). How has the student population changed? Retrieved from:

Institute of the Future (2017). Emerging Technologies’ Impact on Society & Work In 2030. Retrieved from: https://www.

McKinsey Global Institute (2016). Independent work: Choice, necessity, and the gig economy. Retrieved from: independent-work-choice-necessity-and-the-gig-economy

World Economic Forum (2016) What are the 21st-century skills every student needs? Retrieved from: agenda/2016/03/21st-century-skills-future-jobs-students/

Skills Development Scotland Graduate Apprenticeships (2017). Retrieved from: https://www.skillsdevelopmentscotland.

Fiona Godsman is Chief Executive of the Scottish Institute of Enterprise (SIE), the national organisation for promoting and supporting enterprise and entrepreneurship in Scotland’s universities and colleges. Fiona’s role at SIE is strategic and operational, ensuring that SIE’s activities remain relevant, effective and supportive to both student entrepreneurs and academic staff. She serves on a number of advisory groups related to enterprise and entrepreneurship education, sits on the board of trustees of Glasgow Clyde College and is a member of Entrepreneurial Scotland, ensuring that SIE plays a vital connecting role between academia and business within Scotland’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Fiona has nearly 20 years experience in senior global sales, marketing and business development roles in a number of pharmaceutical biotechnology organisations, including Q-One Biotech and Invitrogen. Prior to leading SIE, Fiona founded a specialist marketing consultancy, utilising her experience in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries.

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