Major drivers of global change are reshaping the world in the 21st century and no institution will be completely immune. The fourth industrial revolution, a fusion of exponential technologies where silicon and carbon meet,1 will prove to be as profound as the previous industrial revolutions driven by steam, electricity and computing. The ability to transform will be critical for all education institutions to cultivate, so they can shape and respond to a changing world of education.

Demographic changes are also underway that influence everything deeply. Some jurisdictions have ageing populations, low fertility rates and a shrinking ‘support ratio’ of working-age people 25-64 versus those 65 and older. By 2050, the United Nations believes that 48 countries and territories are likely to have support ratios below two.2 By contrast, other jurisdictions have fertility rates well above the replacement rate of 2.1, huge young populations and growing middle classes. Power and influence are shifting inexorably as a result, in what has been described as a global rebalancing between East and West.3

Potential support ratio by age

Universities have experienced this in various ways. Declining domestic enrolments in the US have been partly offset by growing international numbers. Australia and Canada have aggressively promoted their universities as destinations that will strengthen a migration claim. The UK, leaving the European Union, has declared itself “open for talent,” with longer post-study work rights as part of the inducement.

Whatever the eventual impact of the pandemic, international student mobility will not last forever at these levels. China's domestic university system is improving rapidly, such that it is a study destination. India is investing heavily in its own post-secondary institutions. And there may be a shift in demand internationally toward more vocational, practical courses. Those universities in low-fertility-rate jurisdictions that have hitched their business model to international students will urgently need to revisit their strategy and reduce their costs.

At the same time, as the implications of climate change and initiatives to combat global warming pervade the whole world, we can expect enormous opportunities for research to enhance our understanding of the situation and the efficacy of policy. But universities themselves, as public purpose organizations, will need to be exemplars, reducing their emissions from campus operations and doing things differently.

The age of the customer demands personalized education

Finally, in this list of change drivers from which no one is immune is the era that Forrester Research calls the ‘age of the customer.’

Customer obsession

With the proliferation of social media, abundant product information, online purchasing and the ability to switch preferences quickly, consumer sovereignty is becoming a reality. No business can ignore Customer Experience (CX). And the sector is starting to see this in universities, although KPMG education specialists also argue that this should be developed into a more-complex idea of Student Experience (SX), which adds in Learner Experience (LX) and Personalized Experience (PX).

In the last two decades, many higher-education systems have fostered competition between providers to create quasi-markets as those systems moved from elite to mass participation. But the choice of the student was typically constrained by resources, geography and information. Now these barriers to choice are being overcome. The next shift will be from mass face-to-face to mass digital learning.

The future of higher education in a disruptive world

In recent years, there has been talk in the sector about blended and flexible learning, but the reality has been that online resources have supplemented the dominant mode of delivery, which was synchronous and in-person. Spurred by the pandemic, but probably coming anyway, is the reverse situation. Courses will be designed to be delivered through technology – ‘digital first’ – and supplemented by face-to-face, human support.

It is early days, but the written word is already being accompanied by video, mixed reality and simulations, with realistic holograms a possibility. Smart bots for every subject open up the possibility of personalized learning at scale, monitored by advanced learning analytics. And if the student does not have to leave home or work to experience this (unless they wish to), consumer choice finally opens up. The age of the customer is now hitting universities.

One might predict that some universities will promote a physical experience on campus as part of their value proposition. If they have the brand to maintain demand, they will always have their place – but they will become the minority. There is also a midway point between physical-learning and virtual-learning environments: the augmented learning environment, where attendance at a place is overlaid with a much richer view, enabling a deep experience from modest premises.

One thing is clear. The university that expects students to battle with traffic, find a parking place, go to a lecture, write examinations by hand, get a seat in a crowded library and then go home again will be riding its luck.



Alexander, B. (2020). Academic next: The futures of higher education, Chapter 4. Johns Hopkins University Press.

United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. (2019). World population prospects 2019: Highlights.

3 Baldwin, R. (2016). The great convergence: Information technology and the new globalization. Harvard University Press.