MENON insight: the futures of Higher Education

The present MENON Insight is an open call to participation by all those who feel that they have something distinct to say on The Future of Higher Education. Recognising that this is a moving field with vast changes foreseeable in the near future, we will keep this text under scrutiny and permanent updating. Do feel free to collaborate. We cherish the wisdom of the crowd, an attitude that is as an important principle of MENON’s networking activity. We very much appreciate your willingness to input your ideas on this seminal document, thus contributing to its perfecting and completion in the course of the next few months. Actual disruption will be the result of many heads working together, or the consequence of mapping likemindness in shaping our common future and in defining new paths to overcome  old routines and traditional practices.

Higher Education in times of disruption, by Roberto Carneiro and Nikitas Kastis

Higher Education indisputably becomes an expanding and multifaceted field of changes in the way learning is being organized, offered and experienced. Higher Education institutions across the board are entering new markets and experimenting with changing audiences and emerging needs. While more and more individuals all over the world are joining, in increasing numbers, in-campus tertiary education programs, in order to enhance their knowledge and upgrade their competences, at the same time numbers are also increasing in geometrical order of those participating to a variety of other out-of-school, blended learning courses of both degree and non-degree, professional education – like training, skills upgrading and other employment related forms of learning. Learning out-of-school is certainly considered to be a flourishing industry, at least in terms of numbers and the exponential rise of MOOCs is there to bear witness.

On the other side, universities and other tertiary education institutions, together with research organizations are competing both at the country/region level and internationally for research funds as well as for “brains”, talented and competent individuals who could increase their institutional capacity and eventually their relative competitiveness, striving for both public and private funds – with a constantly increasing effectiveness gap among the institutions themselves and among the countries and regions hosting them. It is noteworthy that those institutions, and the countries hosting them, which have historically been keeping a certain degree of autonomy in decision making, are proved to be much more capable to meet the challenges of a period characterized by fast increasing communities of participants to the out-of-school, lifelong learning and a continuous variation of interests, coupled with decreasing externalities. In other words, what would or should the sustainable operational models of universities and other higher education institutions look like to address present and future challenges, corresponds to an increasing demand in both quantity and quality, while the anticipated returns are characterized by increasing uncertainty as it regards the sources and their quantities.

In this century, not so long from a similar evolutionary period in the past some three centuries ago, both social and economic systems are experiencing deep-rooted changes, some of them considered radical, that are brought about by the emerging ways in which knowledge is constructed, shared and disseminated. The horizontal impact of the digital Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) takes a breakthrough and disruptive nature, by not only changing the means of (with anticipated results in terms of effectiveness) but also establishing new rules of efficiency, i.e. new operational models. With knowledge becoming the key resource of success and prosperity, and with the universities always being the pillars of the knowledge building paradigm, it is more than expected that the area of Higher Education will certainly become the territory of a Perfect Storm! Surely, that change comes with serious losses but is also full of new opportunities.

We are all expecting the role of Higher Education to be changing in the years to come, but with varying modes and pace, much depending on the geographical, cultural and the broader societal context. A series of evolutionary scenarios as it regards the role of the Higher Education institutions and their organization and sustainable practice, have been prescribed, mostly incorporating (a) the gradual move to a service-based model of learner-driven, competence and project- learning, and (b) the co-habitation of a range of “missions” –learning, and (b) the co-habitat of Research (new knowledge creation and sharing), Teaching & Learning and Social

Responsibility – of these institutions, in the 21st century’ s societies. What is important for these societies, broadly aiming at smart and inclusive growth, as the European ones, has to do with ensuring the prevailing conditions which will guarantee that these evolutionary scenarios are being framed by an open and demand-led innovation paradigm, which will entail a multilateral offer of learning and distribution channels – to address the above-mentioned continuously increasing demand – as well as robust new knowledge construction systems and know-how sharing operational models – to provide the basis of a smart and inclusive growth.

Both policy makers as well as university leaders need to get a good grasp on both the changing times and realities governing the Higher Education paradigm, as the latter was prevailing in the last almost a hundred years, and the anticipated evolutions that are coming with the noiseless yet deeply undergoing changes of the socioeconomic structures, that could take the dismantling power of an avalanche, or could just lead to an unrecoverable loss of institutional capacity for the anticipated inclusive growth in those societies that will remain untouched and sclerotic.

This MENON insight  serves the aim of increasing the capacity of both of the afore-mentioned groups of stakeholders for a thorough insight to the future evolutions in Higher Education, by fostering the awareness around factors and their combined impact on the deep-rooted changes, which will gradually become visible and be experienced by the all European societies in this century. 

This is a collaborative reflection of the MENON Network Research Team upon evidence, trends identified and evolution hypotheses built and communicated. The MENON Network is joining forces with other European regulatory, experts and collective bodies, eventually supporting a structured dialogue and evidence based policy making at the national and regional level in Europe, in order to significantly facilitate a step-wise change in the Higher Education area of both the learning specific and knowledge intensive outputs and the corresponding operational models, to be adopted by universities and other tertiary education and research institutions. All of them framing a rational co-existence of multifaceted futures of the Higher Education landscape.

Heavy trends and trends breakers

The continuously evolving typology of demand of learning

The role of ICT in driving new supply modes

The emergence of hybrid institutional formats

Opening up Higher Education: where are we? by Fabio Nascimbeni

The concept of Open Education is raising interest globally, being perceived as a possible solution to the need to educate an increasing Higher Education population in times of financial crisis. “A burgeoning open education movement is becoming established around an agenda of institutional transformation, calling for unrestricted access to educational materials and the diminishing of geographic and economic barriers to participation” (Knox 2013). Approaches such as Open Educational Resources (OER), Open Textbooks, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are increasingly being considered as an option by universities around the world, and at the same time the debate is reaching beyond the OER experts community and the forerunning universities who have adopted open approaches in the last years. Quoting Asha Kanwar from the Commonwealth of Learning, “the key question is no longer about the “how” of OER development. (…) It is more about realising the value to be derived from OER” (McGreal 2013, pag. vi). Also thanks to the attention raised by the “MOOC bubble”, policy and decision makers in education are in fact looking into the “value chain” of open education, considering and discussing issues such as business models and sustainability, and this is broadening the discourse from OER to Open Education in general.

The Open Education movement is developing steadily, achieving important milestones and continuously opening new advocacy and research fronts. In general terms, we observe that the focus is moving from technological challenges, where a lot has been achieved and where the objective now is to be able to work and learn across platforms, legal challenges, where instruments exist to be implemented and used at different levels, and content challenge, where OER are being increasingly created, shared and repurposed, to a new set of challenges of pedagogic, sustainability and organisational nature. This shift of focus from technology, legal issues and content towards pedagogy, sustainability and organisational aspects of Open Education is confirmed by the emergence of the concept of Open Educational Practices, which Ehlers (2011) defines as the second phase of the OER movement. We agree that Open Educational Practices, defined as ways to “support the creation, use and management of OER through institutional policies, promote innovative pedagogical models, and respect and empower learners as co-producers on their lifelong learning path” (Andrade et al. 2011), are opening up the debate beyond courseware and OER and are indeed marking the passage of the OE movement into a new phase. This is witnessed also by the growing interest for the concept of Open Educational Ideas (OEI), defined as processes of freely sharing educational artifacts between stakeholders at an early stage of the design and development process, so to create emotional ownership towards OER by engaging at an early stage of the development process (Pawlowski et al, 2013).

While new results are achieved, new challenges are appearing. The report Beyond OER (Andrade et al. 2011) lists five main barriers that currently undermine the use of OER: lack of institutional support, lack of technological tools for sharing and adapting resources, lack of skills and time of users, lack of quality or fitness of OER, personal issues like lack of trust and time. A literature review of the last 6 years of OER research run by EFQUEL (Camilleri, Ehlers and Pavlowski 2014) reveals that the challenges associated with OER no longer lie in the availability or accessibility of resources. Finally, Pirkkalainen and Pawlowski (2013) provide a map of 31 barriers to OER use by teachers, which also seems to indicate that the limiting factors for OER-use lie outside the realm of availability and accessibility of content, and are on the other hand related to lack of time, training, policy priority, support, awareness, quality content, language issues and incompatibility of resources with current educational scenarios.

This passage to new challenges does not mean that the technological, legal and content-related problems of OE have been fully solved. On the contrary, the debate stays open and we observe that a number of critical views exist on the approach of the OE movement towards these issues. Knox (2013) claims for example that the technologies supporting Open Education are often perceived as having an independent and unquestioned pedagogical value, being considered only as “learning enhancers” without reflecting on the fact that technology has the potential to both enable and limit particular forms of learning. The author suggests that apart from improving user-interfaces and compatibility across platforms and devices, the OE movement should focus on understanding the complex relation between new forms of open education and the technological infrastructures that lie behind them.

Adapting the list of challenges for Open Education proposed by Meiszer (2010), we can say that the attention of the debate is moving from the technological challenges, where the objective now is to be able to work and learn across platforms, legal challenges, where instruments are there to be implemented and used at different levels, and from the content challenge, where OER are being increasingly created, shared and repurposed, to three kinds of challenges, corresponding to three stakeholders groups:

  • Pedagogical challenges, that have to do with the way teaching and learning have to change in an Open Education setting and that are the main concern of teachers. Approaches such as self-directed learning, cooperative learning, problem-based and project-based learning, project and inquiry based learning, together with issues like assignments approaches, motivation and assessment are all being transformed by the Open Education (r)evolution.
  • Sustainability challenges, which are mainly the concern of policy makers, funding agencies and companies, who realised that Open Education needs long-term investments, in a sector where well-established business principles and concepts are still under development. The findings of a consultation run by the European Learning Industry Group (ELIG, 2011) highlighted that the commercial learning industry has not yet fully engaged with Open Education, this being in large part due to a perceived lack of associated business models and to the difficulty of demonstrating enough returns on the needed investment. At the same time, Open Education policies – as the one by the European Commission that will be explored in the next paragraph – still are often conceived as experimental attempts, showing that more needs to be done to convince decision makers of the payoff of Open Education.
  • Organisation challenges, mainly concerning leaders within education institutions, who are faced with the increased complexity brought by open approaches, looking for the balance between traditional and new educational practices, struggling with how to implement and recognise Virtual Mobility schemes, testing new Open Assessment schemes, and putting in place some sore of Recognition of Prior Learning. And who are realizing that adopting Open Education practices means working with an extended group of stakeholders, including practitioners, researchers, peers, etc.

This shift of focus from technology, legal issues and content towards pedagogy, sustainability and organisational aspects of Open Education is confirmed by the generalized emergence of Open Educational Practices, that Ehlers defines as “the second phase of the OER movement“ (Ehlers 2011). Open Educational Practices, which have been investigated by a number of European projects, are defined as practices that “support the creation, use and management of OER through institutional policies, promote innovative pedagogical models, and respect and empower learners as co-producers on their lifelong learning path” (Andrade et al. 2011).

A lot has still to be done: a recent research across more than 100 universities from 29 countries shows that no more than one quarter of the observed sample are somehow using OER, with 60% reporting that they do not deliver any courses solely based on OER (Murphy 2013). Still, the Open Education community is working hard to support stakeholders to tackle the above challenges, with the belief that “true progress in open education requires changes in practice and policy reflected through a change in education culture” (Iiyoshi and Kumar 2008). Researchers from education, ICT, creativity and other fields, as well as legal experts, policy advisors, and especially teachers and leaders in education institutions are exploring all aspects of Open Education (as clearly visible by the amount of knowledge produced and shared for example at to advance towards more open and equal education systems. And – importantly – Open Education is having an impact since it is boosting aggregation of learning communities around common challenges: “Building communities of users supporting lifelong learning, combined with ubiquitous access to OER on the Internet using new mobile technologies, will go a long way in overcoming the recalcitrance of learners and educators” (McGreal 2013).


HE in the context of rising competitive agendas: supplying Talent and Human Capital and handling Major Societal Issues


How are Higher Education Institutions experiencing changesby Spiros Borotis

First Mission: Learning and personal development, 

Universities, nowadays and the last century at least, tend to support people in their personal development, mostly in one-two times during their lives. The first one is usually around the age of 18, whereas some people continue sooner or later to a second-level degree, e.g MA or MSc. After that, their personal or professional (learning related) developmental needs are typically covered through other means or institutions, with the higher education institutions covering a relatively small part of this market. Unfortunately for the lifelong learners, the universities do not redeem their – typically up-to-dated – knowledge on particular and customized for the needs of this target group training programs, ignoring gaudily their alumni and the idea of “customer retention”. This case is more prominent to the European institutions, possibly due the fact that they do not charge for the education they provide, or do it to a lower degree than the American institutions. Inevitably, and due to the financial crisis and the continuously decreasing public spending, the European institutions will enter more dynamically this market the coming years.

This projection sets the route towards the changing nature of education institutions to a more “customer/learner-oriented” culture. This culture is supported by policy initiatives – like the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) or the students’ mobilities – as well as the tremendous expansion of informal learning experiences and initiatives, enabled by the proliferation of contemporary technologies. And it will dominate as an avalanche, due to the pressure originating from technology-enabled initiatives, like the OpenBadges, the provision of MOOCs of widely recognized universities, or even the increased availability of learning resources focuses on the motivation to learn (e.g. embedding gamification characteristics).

Second Mission: Research and new knowledge development


Third Mission: Servicing Societal development

In the modern era, Higher Education institutions are expected to broaden their mission; by now they were servicing the research and development agenda, together with developing scientists, admittedly not always competent professionals. The emerging needs of the market for competent employees necessitate the fulfillment of the gap between higher education and the world of work. This will be covered mostly through apprenticeship schemes, as well as the increasing support of the market to the development of human competencies, e.g. through the enhancement of the curricula, provision of learning resources, using increasingly experienced professionals to the learning activities, etc. Additionally to that, the European higher education institutions will become increasingly the “targets” of funds of private or public interest for developing new ideas, motivating entrepreneurship and creating new and innovative ideas and services, given also the incapability of Europe to compete in terms of the labour cost. Moreover, the universities will and have to come closer to their local communities, as compensation to the support they have obtained all these years from them, as well as to use their international knowledge to solve local issues. This effort may also come into reality through their collaboration with local stakeholders, including but not limited to professional bodies (for example through the development of common accreditation schemes), governmental organizations (to transform public bodies to knowledge intensive organizations), social care constitutions, etc.

What they say. Relevant opinions on the futures of Higher Education

“Every age has a theory of rising and falling, of growth and decay, of bloom and wilt: a theory of nature. Every age also has a theory about the past and the present, of what was and what is, a notion of time: a theory of history. Theories of history used to be supernatural: the divine ruled time; the hand of God, a special providence, lay behind the fall of each sparrow. If the present differed from the past, it was usually worse: supernatural theories of history tend to involve decline, a fall from grace, the loss of God’s favor, corruption.” 

Jill Lepore, The New Yorker, June 23, 2014, The disruption machine: What the gospel of innovation gets wrong


“In 2025 and beyond we will use mobile, digital technology to learn. The classroom will be in our hands. We will have access to knowledge, lessons, and learning technology anywhere, anytime. We will learn in the moment. Our learning will include immersive, multi-sensory experiences that simulate reality. Artificial intelligence will fine-tune learning to fit each or our needs. Human educators will sometimes work as our learning coaches, more essential to the processes of learning than as holders of knowledge. Universities, if they continue, will be places for hands-on education and collaboration.” 

John B. Mahaffie, WiSE ed- review, Qatar Foundation, 2014, MOOCs, Mobile, and the Future of Higher Education


“MOOCs are disruptive innovations [Christensen, Clayton M. The Innovator’s Dilemma. New York: Collins, 2003. Print.], challenging the formal higher education system. (…)They are unsatisfying if we assess  them with traditional measures. Their completion rates, if compared with classroom courses, are abysmal, at as little as five percent [Kolowich, Steve. “Completion Rates Aren’t the Best Way to Judge MOOCs, Researchers Say.” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 22, 2014]. (…)But to look for MOOCs to be as good than traditional higher education is to miss the point. MOOCs are good enough. They give some learners access that before never could have it at all. They represent the first wave of change which will break new ground and build new markets in higher education. MOOCs are only in their earliest stage of evolution, and they will get better. Lots of organizations are working to move digital learning to the next waves of capability. That will include adding intelligent software to the content to help learners confirm their progress, and pace their work. Intelligent courseware will be much more than MOOCs as we know them. Even today’s MOOCs have ways in which they outcompete classroom learning. MOOCs release content from a fixed schedule. They allow learners to work at the pace which is right for them, from anywhere. They allow the learner to choose what they do and do not want to learn. MOOCs loosen what is rigid in the traditional higher education system: curricula, majors, degrees, school terms, class periods, access and rights to access, costs, and location. Dropping those barriers gives an advantage that for many, even now in the early days of MOOCs, outweighs their downside. MOOCs are teaching us how to question the traditional higher education system: its structure, its timing, its costs, its leadership, and so on. And in the differences we see between the experiments in online learning, we see how much, and perhaps how, higher education will change.

John B. Mahaffie, WiSE ed- review, Qatar Foundation, 2014, MOOCs, Mobile, and the Future of Higher Education

Sebastian Thrun, the ex-Stanford professor and Google-X technologist turned founder of e-learning start-up Udacity. He describes his on-line burning-bush moment here, and is also covered in good  reporting by Tamar Lewin. Last fall, 160,000 students in 190 countries enrolled in an Artificial Intelligence course taught by Mr. Thrun and Peter Norvig, a Google colleague. An additional 200 registered for the course on campus, but a few weeks into the semester, attendance at Stanford dwindled to about 30, as those who had the option of seeing their professors in person decided they preferred the online videos, with their simple views of a hand holding a pen, working through the problems.

Chris Newfield, June 6, 2012. Quality Public Higher Ed: From Udacity to Theory Y.


The eighteenth century embraced the idea of progress; the nineteenth century had evolution; the twentieth century had growth and then innovation. Our era has disruption, which, despite its futurism, is atavistic. It’s a theory of history founded on a profound anxiety about financial collapse, an apocalyptic fear of global devastation, and shaky evidence. (…)Most big ideas have loud critics. Not disruption. Disruptive innovation as the explanation for how change happens has been subject to little serious criticism, partly because it’s headlong, while critical inquiry is unhurried; partly because disrupters ridicule doubters by charging them with fogyism, as if to criticize a theory of change were identical to decrying change; and partly because, in its modern usage, innovation is the idea of progress jammed into a criticism-proof jack-in-the-box.

Jill Lepore, The New Yorker, June 23, 2014, The disruption machine: What the gospel of innovation gets wrong.


Professor Thrun recently appeared on Warren Olney’s KCRW show To the Point, on a segment called “Why is College So Expensive?” and explained correctly that Udacity wouldn’t replace college so much as extend it with on-line courses to people that are currently excluded from physical attendance (about 0:28 on).  But he didn’t address the question of extending college to any specific educational effect.  Echoing this hollow core, even good coverage by people like Felix Salmon (here and here, on Rob Reich’s doubts), focuses on education as easy information travel to other countries via great production values.  The sense of transformative novelty is fueled by the spectacle of a global mass audience coupled with the absurd claim that modern media has not yet come to the existing college classroom (0:33)

Chris Newfield, June 6, 2012. Quality Public Higher Ed: From Udacity to Theory Y.

M.. Meranze & C… Newfield. Remaking the University.


The real barrier to educational quality on the mass public scale is not resistance to innovation but systemic poverty.  Writing on “The Rise of the SuperProfessor,” Doug Ganss hits the nail on the head: People most effective at producing courseware in the future will have complete production studios staffed with video crews, interactive experts, gamification mavens, courseware experience specialists, usability teams, outcome testers, and much more. Public upgrading depends not on the entrepreneurial will of public U faculty, which exists in abundance, but on access to Hollywood-Silicon infrastructure.  The Stanford-Google-TED complex has this. UC and CSU do not: -now, after 3 years of cuts, less than ever. (…)  If we focus on social development rather than on global revenue streams, it’s clear that the TED-ED sector should actively partner with the publics rather than casting them as retros which their courseware production studios are destined to replace. In turn, public universities should hold the Udacities of the world to Theory Y standards of creative educational outcomes–excellent staging yes, but mass creativity as the actual point.

Chris Newfield, June 6, 2012. Quality Public Higher Ed: From Udacity to Theory Y.

M.. Meranze & C… Newfield. Remaking the University.


Studying the university’s history will allow us to move beyond the forlorn language of crisis to hopeful and practcal strategies for success. C. Christense & H.J. Euring. The innovative University. 2011




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