The Disruption of Higher Education

Opportunities in a new global learning ecosystem

June 3, 2021

The ability to transform will be the critical one for all education institutions to cultivate, so they can shape and respond to a changing world of education. – KPMG, The future of higher education in a disruptive world

While online offerings aren’t new to the field of education, the COVID pandemic has accelerated the need for higher education institutions to pivot from in-person teaching to the digital realm. This shift has called into question traditional teaching and learning models by raising questions pertaining to what our institutions will look like and how students will use them once they’re able to return to campus. While the changes precipitated by the pandemic took place practically overnight, it exposed gaping holes in the existing system and continues to highlight opportunities to create a more sustainable model for learning, moving forward.

The current higher ed proposition.

For decades, universities have adopted a strategy to build campus experiences focused on establishing emotional connections to place. Investments have flowed to:

  • Student services / healthcare
  • Campus housing
  • Social / athletic endeavours
  • Governance

The higher education revenue model relies on in-person, social interaction, exclusive to a central campus setting. This exclusivity is rooted in long-held beliefs about how the current higher education system creates value, including:

  • Knowledge is durable over time.
  • Learning must be imparted by experts.
  • Knowledge is precious. It is handed down from person to person.
  • Learning is conducted in a classroom.

The existing higher education model was built to maintain a sense of exclusivity through a static framework that resists change.

Higher education is entering a new reality. Even before COVID, it was clear that our long-held beliefs around knowledge transfer were changing as the desire for lifelong learning became commonplace. When we look at new beliefs around knowledge transfer, we see how they run counter to the principles that underpin the existing higher education model:

  • Knowledge is fragile. It decays over time.
  • Learning can come from anyone at any time.
  • Knowledge is abundant. It grows exponentially.
  • Learning can be conducted almost anywhere.

In response, new players are identifying and seizing opportunities to provide what’s missing. Companies and governments are stepping in to close the gap between traditional education and 21st century job skills.

Alternative learning platforms.

Artificial Intelligence

The Chinese government has made AI-enabled education a national strategy. A growing number of online education companies are upending traditional classroom learning.

Online Providers

FutureLearn, Udacity, Coursera, and edX are just some of the new providers providing “nanodegrees” or “micromasters” and expanding access to education.


According to Ipsos, 80% of Gen Z teens say YouTube has helped them become more knowledgeable about something and 68% say YouTube has helped them improve or gain skills that will help them prepare for the future.

Employers as educators.

Google launched a professional certificate program, which allows students to learn skills for in-demand digital jobs in a fraction of the time and cost of a degree program, including courses for data analysts, project managers and UX designers in around six months.

L’Oréal’s “Learning for All” platform provides access to training to its over 70,000 staff in 130 countries through a self-guided on demand version and structured courses conducted by a training manager.

AT&T University is an executive-led program focused on leadership development housed at the Dallas HQ.

The new education ecosystem.

When we consider that learning can happen from almost anywhere at any time, the prevalence of the desire for lifelong learning, and how education is intimately tied to a changing world of work, we begin to see an emerging new global learning ecosystem.

This new ecosystem includes evolving learning platforms and a trend towards entrepreneurism, in addition to companies that require talent to engage in consistently upgrading their skills to remain competitive. The question then arises:  how will the current higher education system adapt to add value in the new global learning ecosystem?