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New global report holds lessons for the GCC.

Governments and Universities Urged to Prepare for an Avalanche of Change in Higher Education

London, UK, Dubai, UAE, 5 May 2013: The next fifty years could be a golden age for higher education, according to a new report published by the UK’s leading progressive think tank, the Institute for Public Policy and Research (IPPR). Sir Michael Barber and his colleagues Katelyn Donnelly and Saad Rizvi, authors of the new report, say this will only happen if all the players in the system seize the initiative and act ambitiously.

Lead author, Sir Michael Barber, is Chief Education Adviser at Pearson and former advisor to the UK’s former Prime Minister, Tony Blair. In the new report, “An Avalanche is Coming”, he and his co-authors describe an era of intense pressure on universities driven by globalisation, technology, rising student expectations, competition for funding and new, disruptive entrants.

The report holds significant meaning for both governments and universities in the Gulf region, as higher education institutions in the GCC face growing challenges in providing relevant educational solutions in an increasingly competitive global environment.

Writing in the report, Sir Michael Barber says: “Our belief is that the models of higher education that marched triumphantly across the globe in the second half of the 20th Century require radical and urgent transformation. Our fear is that the nature of change is incremental and the pace of change too slow.”

Lawrence Summers, former US Treasury Secretary and former President of Harvard, says in a foreword to the report that it “poses profound questions for leaders of higher education.” The report challenges every player in the higher education system to act boldly and urgently.

The report raises important issues for those influencing decisions in higher education in the Gulf, including the need for governments to rethink their regulatory and funding regimes, which were designed for an era when university systems were national. In the era of globalisation, government ministries need to consider big questions, including:

  • How can they fund and support part-time students?

  • How can governments incentivise the connection between universities and cities that can stimulate innovation and economic development?

  • As universities compete on a global stage, do governments have a role in ensuring that their domestic universities survive and thrive?

Finding a niche
The report also stresses the need for each university to be clear which niches or segments it wants to serve, and what will set its educational experience and impact apart. Multipurpose universities with a combination of a wide range of degrees and a broad research programme are likely to face considerable challenges. The report argues that the traditional university faces the threat of being ‘unbundled’ as it competes with more specialised institutions, online learning systems, training providers and consultancies.

Some will need to specialise in teaching alone –and move away from the traditional lecture to the multi-faced teaching possibilities now available:

  • The elite university
  • The mass university
  • The niche university
  • The local university
  • The lifelong learning mechanism

Citizens need to seize the opportunity to learn and relearn throughout their lives. They need to be ready to take personal responsibility both for themselves and the world around them. Every citizen is a potential student and a potential creator of employment.

Region striving to stay ahead of the higher education revolution
Pearson has been working closely with governments and higher education institutions in the Gulf to help them stay relevant to modern students’ needs, and up-to-date with the latest developments in information technology in the education sector.

Pearson’s Vice President of Higher Education and Applied Learning in the region, Mr Fadi Khalek says that there are some key ways universities in the GCC have kept abreast of international developments and student demands. He says: “Firstly, higher education institutions here have maintained the professional development of their staff by offering regular workshops, symposia and conferences, all of which support faculty development in areas relating to academic transformation. Secondly, many of these same institutions have taken up our course and curriculum re-design services, to accompany their moves towards mobile and personalized learning; as well taking advantage of Pearson’s mobile based assessments and adaptive learning solutions.

“We have also been collaborating to offer custom content design, and development and management services to institutions, so they can cater to all future learning needs, including mobile, blended and modular. It is our goal to establish Pearson’s Middle East technology infrastructure so that all our customers across the region have access to the very best of Pearson’s dynamic and innovative solutions for higher education”.

Challenges of GCC Universities Echoed Around the Globe
There are three fundamental challenges facing systems not only in the Gulf region, but all round the world:

1.     How can universities and new providers ensure education for employability? This challenge is pertinent for decision makers in the GCC, where youth unemployment rates are amongst the highest in the world, and employers consistently complain of the lack of relevant work skills amongst university graduates.

2.     How can the link between cost and quality be broken? At present, the authors claim, global rankings of universities in effect equate all inputs with output. They put a premium on research volumes which have little or no impact on the student experience or student outcomes. Only universities which have build up vast research capacity and low student-teacher ratios can come out on top in global rankings. Yet in the era of modern technology, when students can individually and collectively create knowledge themselves, outstanding quality without high fixed costs is plausible and desirable. New entrants are effectively barred from entry and the authors argue that a new university ranking focused on learner outcomes is required.

3.   How does the entire learning ecosystem need to change to support alternative providers and the future of work? The authors cite examples of a new breed of learning providers that emphasize learning by practice and mentorship. It argues that systematic changes are necessary to embed these successful companies on a wider scale.

Notes to editors
The new report - An Avalanche Is Coming: higher education and the revolution ahead – is co-authored by Sir, 2013 Michael Barber, Katelyn Donnelly and Saad Rizvi and was published on Monday 11th March.
The report is now available at and