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Challenger models disrupting higher education

Employers are increasingly recognising the value of innovative education models, experts told the sector at The PIE Live, the PIE’s two-day international education conference in March.

Disruptive organisations are reimagining higher education and responding to evolving student and employer needs Photo: Roger Harris

Disruptive organisations are reimagining higher education and responding to evolving student and employer needs

Employer expectations are changing, said representatives from Minerva Project, University Academy 29, Nexford University and TEDI London –which all offer non-traditional higher education programs – in a panel discussion at the event.

“Employers don’t actually recognise brands beyond the top brands,” said Fadl Al Tarzi, founder and CEO of Nexford University, a fully-online university with a “pay-as-you-go” financial model. “In my view, employers are getting more sophisticated in their approach.”

Al Tarzi argued that companies are beginning to “value skills more than credentials” and are realising that there is a “financial impact” of only hiring from specific brands, as organisations are effectively “subsidising” student loan debt.

“I think it is slow change but it is coming,” agreed Gary Pritchard, chief academic officer at University Academy 92, a UK-based university which focuses on media, business, sports and digital skills. “Employers are finally coming round to realising that there’s a whole talent pool that is being missed.”

These comments come as traditional universities face increasing scrutiny around whether they are fit-for-purpose and how well they prepare graduates for the “real world”.

“How do you conduct chemistry experiments on Zoom?”

Earlier this year, analysis of the higher education sector by EY found that the shift towards remote learning “is just the start of the sector’s accelerating change” and that “leaders must accept that there will be no return to normal”.

The report argues that falling birth rates are already resulting in a smaller pool of undergraduates in some regions while demographic shifts, changing workplace demands and high student expectations are all subverting the requirements for higher education.

Meanwhile, challenger organisations have emerged, offering a new ecosystem for learning that is better adapted to these new norms.

EY warns that if universities are to “innovate at the speed and scale needed to survive” they must “take a ‘future-back’ approach, considering unthinkable future scenarios and how their operating models may need to radically transform to remain competitive”.

Speakers at The PIE Live demonstrated how some disruptive organisations are reimagining higher education and responding to evolving student and employer needs, particularly using technology to do so.

Steve Grubbs, CEO and co-founder of VictoryXR, argued in a separate panel that the future of higher education is in “metaversities”, digital twin campuses.

“How do you conduct chemistry experiments on Zoom?” he asked, explaining that metaversities allow students to attend virtual interactive classes as well as accommodating flexible schedules to support non-traditional students.

“By changing the admissions process, that’s how you make universities more equal and diverse”

Beyond employability, speakers demonstrated how disruptive models are improving diversity and making higher education more accessible.

Diana El Azar, senior director at Minerva Project, explained that Minerva boasts a diverse cohort, despite its approximately 2% admission rate.

Its student body has an equal gender split and less than 20% of its students come from the US. Some 60% of students are from households with an income of less than $50,000.

“That is astounding,” she said, “because if you think of elite universities, they cater for rich children. So by changing the admissions process, that’s how you make universities more equal and diverse.”

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