Are Higher Education Institutes the High-Street of the future?

Alistair Sergeant
Alistair Sergeant

Higher education continues to be disrupted by technology, globalisation, choice and shifting demographics of the student. Could these demands lead to the demise of some universities in the same way that we see in the high street?

A means to an end. Why go to the high street when you can shop online? The same could be said for getting an education.

If we take the assumption that for most students obtaining a degree is a means to an end. That ‘end’ goal is typically to improve their employability in the future. But, a major challenge for universities is that a degree may not be the key to success it once was. Prominent tech leaders from Siemens and Apple question the need for degrees. Apple reporting half of their new staff from last year did not have degrees, reasoning that many universities do not teach the skills business leaders need for their workforce such as coding. A sentiment that resonates with Amazon, who are taking this observation one step further by investing up to $700m to retrain 100,000 employees—a third of its U.S. workforce. Their observation was that the demand for talent has drastically pivoted towards meeting industrial revolution 4.0 and aligning a workforce to leverage technology. Are university degrees capable of keeping up with advances in technology to meet the demands of the workplace?

Outside of Tech, Ernst and Young’s internal research found that screening students based on academic performance alone was too blunt an approach to recruitment. Having found no evidence to conclude that previous success in higher education correlated with future success in subsequent professional qualifications undertaken. As the fifth largest recruiter of graduates in the UK, the change in position indicates that there are effective and alternative ways to achieve the desired end.

Of course, not all will be hoping for a role in professional services or tech. Some roles require broader knowledge of a subject or subjects that cannot be taught in company driven training sessions. But this does not mean the traditional academic format of attending lectures is necessarily the most appropriate. The rise of online learning platforms such as Coursera demonstrate to potential students that their ability to achieve the desired end state (i.e. a good job) is not compromised by how content is delivered, given many are course accredited by a slew of Ivy League colleges and prestigious UK universities such as Imperial. For more standard ‘Open University’ style distance learning courses, the advent of technology has made a positive structural change to the delivery of educational content and much more is ‘possible’ than previously. Despite this, universities in general are still playing catch up in being able to offer a compelling online value proposition. Outside of Oxford, the best UK universities offer a very limited set of programmes that can wholly be completed online. In contrast, many top ranked US universities offer online degree programs over a more diverse range of topics including PhD’s in Nursing which at least demonstrates a proof of concept that has not been fully explored in the UK.

1 Cambridge None
2 Oxford 90 online and distance learning courses across a wide range of subjects; some courses lead to University qualifications.
3 St Andrews Limited postgraduate options.
4 London School of Economics Limited number of online short courses with certification.
5 Imperial Limited to business school short courses.
6 Durham Online MBA only.
7 Lancaster Wide portfolio of post graduate courses offered.
8 Loughborough Limited select courses with accreditation.
9 Bath Limited number of MScs.
10 University College London Short online course – Not accredited.


By shopping online, you get better deals.

Continuing with the analogy that some students are only interested in the result, irrespective of means. It stands to reason, that they recognise that the process of obtaining a university degree is an investment. An investment that requires both time and money. A recent study in retention rates for students from under-represented groups found that they are much more likely to quit university because they question the value for money, and they are more likely to struggle with course content. The report is indicative of the wider consensus that students are treating the provision of education with the lens of a commercially savvy buyer, which means universities need to work harder to win their business.


Technology has overcome some of the challenges that made online preferable to bricks and mortar – could this now be applied to the traditional lecture, too?

For the purchase of some items the real experience always trumps the online one. Or does it? Advances in augmented reality allow consumers to visualise products in real time in their own homes. 3D visualisations give the opportunity for consumers to see how products look in their space before they commit to purchase. Similarly, is the traditional lecture hall format always conducive to more effective learning, when many factors are at play including the lecturer quality, the concept being taught, and the learning preference of the student. The use of AR in the learning environment is expected to substantially disrupt traditional learning models by:

  • Increasing student engagement using a gamified approach that resonates with today’s students.
  • Explaining more abstract and complex concepts through 3D visualisation.
  • Allowing students to undertake the practical elements of a programme without the need of a physical space or tools.
  • Allowing the student to learn anywhere and at their pace. With AR apps users can learn anytime and anywhere from their smartphones. It is the best way to replace paper books, posters, huge physical models, etc.


How can Universities avoid the fate of the High Street? Focus on developing a value proposition that emphasises the student experience.

The High Street continues to be disrupted by the demands of an ever-changing consumer. The more successful high street brands have generally pivoted towards bringing experiences that the internet can’t. At its most base level, the future of the high street is focused on delivering something that satisfies the needs of humans as social beings and that is something Universities should focus on; a sense of community and belonging.

Universities should remind potential applicants that the experience of attending university is an unmatched opportunity for self-exploration and to meet likeminded people, this coupled with a flexible approach to learning and leveraging new technologies are the key drivers to student recruitment and the student experience. Universities should not only be comparing themselves to peers, they should be comparing themselves to other experiences that potential students may be consuming.

Whether the university is a quaint little campus institution, the equivalent to a small town cobbled high street or a sprawling multi hectare city university an equivalent to a Westfield shopping mall – Universities need to do more to market the value proposition focused on the student experience and the intangibles that attending university brings. Institutions that are unable to deliver that compelling proposition may end up the Woolworths and BHS of higher education.

Share this article

More about the author

Alistair Sergeant
Alistair Sergeant CEO

As CEO of Equantiis, his main focus is on strategic leadership and growth within the business whilst working through new opportunities that support this. Alistair manages client relationships so that they can benefit from his experience and knowledge. He thrives on leading a disruptive business that works with business leaders to identify and overcome complex business challenges, with cost certainty and transformative outcomes. Alistair is passionate about anything outdoors. Including running, camping and travelling with the family.

Contact an expert

Get in touch directly with a consultant –
We’d love to discuss how we can help you achieve your project goals.

Get in touch