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Retail was raided by Alibaba, Bol.com and Amazon, the hotel industry has been turned upside down by Booking and Airbnb, and journalism and media upset due to Google, Facebook and other platforms. The music industry has been utterly transformed – first by Napster, and then by Spotify. Start-ups like Lawgeex are now beginning to make segments of the legal services industry obsolete. In addition, banks are being increasingly backed into a corner by mobile services such as Payoneer, Lending Club, Alipay and Paypal. Examples of systemic disruption can be found all around us.

Blind spots: the places where disruptions emerge

Every sector has a blind spot. That’s where new companies develop the smart innovations that have the potential to upend the rules of the sector. Investors are looking in those blind spots for innovations that are unique and which can be scaled up quickly. We have witnessed these systemic disruptions in the six sectors mentioned above. Their impact there has been enormous. However, there are more sectors which have these kinds of blind spots. Our higher education sector is one of them. 

Universities and applied science colleges must prepare for these disruptions

Over the past few months, I have traveled to several universities in Europe to investigate how they deal with, and anticipate, the blind spots in higher education. It was great that the University of Twente gave me the opportunity to do this and I have since written three columns. The first one deals with the anatomy of systemic disruption in other sectors. The second is about what is currently happening in higher education as far as what ‘on offer’ is concerned. E.g., which competitors are currently preparing to challenge our universities and applied science colleges? And what kind of value propositions are they offering? And the third column addressed the changing demands: what do students, employers, and society want in the future? 

How can you prepare yourself with so many uncertainties?

Hyperdigitalization, aggressive new competitors, growing dependence on EdTech, exponential growth in investment from venture capitalists, the call for flexibility, and more opportunities for lifelong learning, as well as the call for greater societal relevance. Together, these are creating a perfect storm for higher education. Over the coming years, the rules for international higher education will be rewritten, and our institutions need to make sure that they are also around the drawing board.

Learning how to experiment

First, institutions need to get their internal kitchens in shape to handle any disruptions. No one knows what higher education of the future will look like. That means institutions must learn to experiment, dare to fail if necessary, and scale up what works as soon as possible. That is a continuous iterative process. In order to have the adaptive capacity required for this, organizations do need to sort themselves out. Major challenges for this include: rigid organizational forms, finding a solution to the current problems surrounding work pressure, and arranging an up-to-date HR policy. The help of The Hague government is truly indispensable for these three aspects. 

Bringing quality up to standard

Secondly, it also entails: getting the quality of digital and personalized education up to standard as soon as possible. We have worked hard on this over the past two years. But the fact remains: our commercial competitors are well ahead of our own institutions in this respect. They are using smart digitalization to organize themselves around what students want. They are also making more intensive use of learning analytics and AI to improve graduation rates. Our universities and higher vocational institutes are currently working closely together on strengthening digital higher education as part of the Acceleration Plan. That said, the real digital transformation has yet to seep into their DNA. 

Value propositions for the future

Thirdly, universities and higher vocational institutions need to work on developing clear value propositions for the future. Institutions must ensure that these propositions will provide lasting value for our stakeholders and students in the future, over that of the commercial competitors currently jostling for attention. Pillars under such a proposition could be: community-building and a sense of belonging; robust relationships with alumni and access to alumni networks; focus on personalized quality and partnerships with research; personalized education; unique campuses and inner-city locations; networks with universities and applied science colleges abroad; or flexible education and lifelong learning (LLL). 

Get to work on major societal transitions

Last but not least, universities and applied science colleges will have to make themselves indispensable to society. They will have to be much more emphatic in dealing with major social transitions. And by doing this, they must make it clear to everyone that they play an invaluable role as powerhouses in the face of these social challenges. This means that in terms of their internal programming, these institutes must establish close ties with major challenges surrounding energy, digitalization, the labor market, housing, and climate. It also means that higher education institutions – coming from their position of academic independence – must learn to work more effectively with the business community and civil society organizations. Only then can they remain indispensable, even in times of austerity. 

High time to take action

In other words, there is work to be done. Spoiler alert: three factors are making it even more complicated for our universities and applied science colleges to stay on top of the blind spots. The cumulative effect of all these crises will lead to social and political inertia for the next, umpteenth crisis: that of our higher education. Labor market shortages that are already plaguing many institutions are limiting the freedom for higher education institutions to operate. And an upcoming recession will undoubtedly lead to budget cuts in the medium term. You could say that those are plenty of reasons to act quickly. 

About this column:

In a weekly column, alternately written by Eveline van Zeeland, Derek Jan Fikkers, Eugène Franken, PG Kroeger, Katleen Gabriels, Carina Weijma, Bernd Maier-Leppla, Willemijn Brouwer and Colinda de Beer, Innovation Origins tries to figure out what the future will look like. These columnists, sometimes joined by guest bloggers, are all working in their own way to find solutions to the problems of our time. So tomorrow will be good. Here are all the previous columns in this series.