This article was originally published in the 2013 edition of the Continuing Higher Education Review.

The great historian Henry Adams once said that the only thing certain about change is that is likely to occur at a faster and faster pace. This thinking certainly would not be not be inconsistent with the thesis of a new paper released in March of this year titled, An Avalanche is Coming: Higher Education and the Revolution Ahead. Published by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR), a think tank based in the United Kingdom, the paper is authored by Michael Barber, Katelyn Donnelly, and Saad Rizvi, all three of whom are affiliated with the publishing giant Pearson Publishing Corporation in educational policymaking capacities. The foreword to this paper is provided by none other than Lawrence Summers, former Harvard University president, former US Treasury Secretary, and, at the time of this writing, a possible chair of the US Federal Reserve. That a past and probably future captain of the governmental, academic and financial worlds provided the forward may actually be a significant clue in understanding the possible nature of the paradigm from which the analyses and suggestions of the authors and their analyses and recommendations spring. Additionally, the IPPR paper has been cited favorably by higher education figures in the UK, including the current Vice-Chancellor of the University of Exeter and past president of Universities UK (Smith, 2013).

As Barber, Donnelly, and Rizvi note, dramatic changes resulting from forces such as the globalization of the economy and the rapid pace of technological advancement are likely to confront higher education, and leaders and policymakers face a typical choice of either resisting, ignoring or embracing the possibilities. In their words,

. . . We have sought to describe the threat posed to traditional 20th century universities if key institutions don’t change radically, as well as the huge opportunities open to them if they do… it is a classic error in strategy to calculate the risks of action but fail to calculate the (often greater) risks of doing nothing (pp. 3-4).

While the threats facing higher education are great, the scope of the paper is modest. Rather than offer detailed recommendations for change, the authors intend to stimulate a discussion on change in higher education by presenting their views and proposing possible directions in institutional responses:

We aim here to provoke creative dialogue and challenge complacency. We have not intended to be comprehensive in our examination, but instead this paper will be more like an impressionist painting which has its emphasis on the bigger picture rather than on the detail (p. 4).


Elegantly and logically organized, the paper provides a pithy executive summary and starts in dramatic fashion with the image of a snow-covered mountainside that is seemingly solid but whose surface conceals unseen forces affecting its structure. The avalanche facing higher education is likely to produce structural change, warn the authors, that is as dramatic as the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, the disintegration of the Catholic Church’s hegemony in Ireland and elsewhere, and the financial meltdown of 2007.

What are the forces that could affect the longstanding sway of the traditional university? Barber, Donnelly and Rizvi discuss six change factors that could trigger the avalanche of change to higher education: a changing global economy, a crisis-ridden global economy, the rising costs of higher education, the declining value of a traditional degree, the ubiquity of content, and the quickening intensity of competition in the educational marketplace. These factors are likely to challenge fundamentally nearly every component of a traditional university, ranging from the outputs of research, degrees, and the role of the university within its community, to the people who live and work in the university (i.e., faculty, students, and administration), to the curriculum and pedagogy of academic programs.

What is perhaps the signature concept in this paper is the discussion of the organizational dynamic of “unbundling,” the inclusion and exclusion of the components of the traditional university noted above, raising the possibility of educational organizations that are formed by a variety of government, business, and independent groups in a variety of combinations of functional components formerly the exclusive domain of the university. For example, one educational combination may focus on research and building local community capacity, while business interests might form another to provide marketable credentials to students, of which a degree would be only one type. Still other combinations that could replace the functions of the university might entail civic leaders working with students to provide field-based co-curricular and work/study experiences, or elite faculty providing curricular content for an assortment of universities of different missions, sizes, and types who are willing to pay the highest price. Perhaps a more radical unbundling could involve students banding together in associations run by higher education administrators that collect the content that meets particular student goals such as employability standards or personal lifelong learning interests.

The forces of technological advancement make possible the phenomena of unbundling and rebundling so that it is conceivable for one component to be separated from the traditional university mix (i.e., administrative support such as testing services and teaching support such as Learning Management Systems). Technology has also increased global access, dramatically expanding the competition and choices in the provision of traditional university components. Shifts in the role of the student to that of consumer, a change in governmental funding, demands of business, or the entrepreneurism of “creative creators” are also among the influences could create new rebundles or combinations of educational functions.

Unbundling and rebundling matter, for they are both an engine and product of educational policymaking. For example, government support may shift away from educational programs that produce professionals such as social workers and parole/probation specialists in favor of programs that produce scientists and mathematicians. Universities may have to spend more time explaining to governmental and private funders why the functionally comprehensive model of many state universities is good public policy. And not inconsequentially, students themselves may have to shift their skill set away from consuming knowledge toward acquiring a diversity of creative and innovative learning experiences. The implications are perhaps more numerous than even the authors suggest, but for the top leaders of traditional universities, the implications are a stark as for those who dwell at the base of the snow-covered mountain as the elements of an avalanche begin to form complex combinations: our globalized and technologized world will yield novel collaborations among an expanding base of stakeholders. And embracing the opportunities from the coming disruption is far wiser than ignoring or resisting it, given that rapidity of disruption is unpredictable.



None of the implications of structural change should affect the world view or style of operation of leadership in continuing higher education, with its broad collection of distance, adult / workforce, and lifelong learning professionals. After all, most of us in continuing higher education survive and thrive in the position because we are the flexible and creative responders within an academy we find alternately frustrating and inspiring. We believe in (and put into practice) student-centered programming and learning environments, though we may only sometimes refer to learners as “customers” as do Barber, Donnelly, and Rizvi. We have struggled to find university and community partnerships that would enhance quality and limit costs. Those of us in continuing higher education are the least likely in the academy to shy away from innovative co-curricular experiences like study abroad and professional externships. Many of us (the research efforts of Michigan State’s and UPCEA’s own Burt Bargerstock come to mind) put theory and best practices in operation in areas of outreach and engagement. Like the paper’s authors, we are concerned with building the capacity of our universities to contribute to the quality of life in the communities where they reside. We are often the advocates for technological support that can lead to better teaching and learning for both traditional and nontraditional learners. Many of us experimented with technology’s emancipatory power decades before Coursera, edX, and Udacity brought MOOCs into higher education’s lexicon. So it is with all of that in mind that the following comments are offered as constructive qualifiers to the concepts, forces, and dynamics outlined, which should appropriately provoke thought and debate.


Segmentation and stratification in higher education

Segmentation and stratification are nothing new in higher education. However, many in continuing higher education, perhaps because of our commitment to widening participation, are resistant to the idea. So we should look with a bit of skepticism at any unbundling and rebundling that could reduce the current pool of higher educational institutions into a narrowed group of institutions rank ordered by gradations of prestige or economic might. Barber, Donnelly, and Rizvi’s taxonomy of higher educational institutions (pp. 55-59) listing the “elite,” “mass,” “niche,” “local,” and “continuing education function,” in that order, implies a hierarchy of wealth and opportunity. UPCEA and the American Council on Education are currently engaged in research that will help us know whether MOOCs, which the authors associate with the “mass university,” are truly innovative for all. But even as some see MOOCs as an opportunity to enhance awareness of the possibilities of technology, for a few others in the distance education community, MOOCs have been seen thus far as one-dimensional transmissive learning that harkens back to a vision of the 1970s Open University television courses. Will continuing higher education be satisfied with mere recordings of great lectures for some, while quality classroom environments, technologically mediated or not, become accessible to those who can still afford them?

Unbundling, rebundling, and . . .  outsourcing?

Unbundling can open opportunities for institutions to bring in great content and instructional support for higher education from often-overlooked sources such as the business, government, and independent nonprofit sectors. As universities look at these sources, we need to be conscious of philosophical, regulatory, and legal concerns regarding partnering between a university and outside parties that results from unbundling and rebundling. Philosophical dispositions of university leadership are crucial, for example, in pursuing partnerships that take on the character of unbundling (e.g., partnerships that lead to innovation and capacity-building) as opposed to a more limited cost-shifting goal of outsourcing (see Scull, Shearer, Ahlwalia, Ugras, & Clinefelter, 2013). Complications from external partnering can be significant, ranging from the legal crafting of contracts to addressing accreditation guidelines for university partner relationships. Work is currently being done under the auspices of the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET), led by Ohio University’s Deborah Gearhart, to develop a model administrative checklist for assessing the possibilities of third-party vendor relationships. WCET should be releasing this checklist in the fall (personal conversation, 2013). Initial drafts suggest that third-party vendor relationships, and by implication un- and rebundling, are not something those who eschew administrative detail should engage in without deliberation.

Sustainability and capacities for flexible response

Efforts at partnering motivated by short-term considerations can result in unbundling and rebundling that strip away an institution’s capacity to respond nimbly to societal demands. Most who lead continuing and distance education units know that we manage broad portfolios of programs and functions, where some functions and programs generate considerable revenue, and others require some financial care and feeding. If universities and by extension, continuing and distance education units, narrow our institutional foci and allow the unbundling of lucrative areas because of the appeal of more glamorous associations (e.g., rebundling with influential publishing houses, effective researchers / grant writers, and well-known technologists), we may face more far-reaching and unintended consequences. Sharing surplus revenue from financially attractive programs with a rebundling partner, such as contract learning with industry, may leave little to maintain the financial standing of deserving but financially challenging functions, such as serving adult and off-campus learners.

The Role of faculty in the Academy

Unbundling and rebundling content inevitably affects the position and number of faculty at universities. This comes at a time when the numbers of tenured and tenure-track faculty in higher education are in steady decline (Scull, Shearer, Kendrick, & Offerman, 2011). University faculty are not often celebrated or their role as monitors of academic administration, but they are nonetheless critical as referees of administrative action related to knowledge production and transfer (Neem, 2013). And many conceptions of best practices in distance and continuing education teaching and learning recognize the positive possibilities of faculty involvement (see, for example, WICHE Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications, 2013).


Researchers in continuing and distance education have long noted some of the trends that the authors examine, trends such as the unbundling of faculty roles, the movement toward competency- or outcomes-based programs, and outsourcing and partnerships (see Howell, Williams, & Lindsay, 2003). Nevertheless, Avalanche deserves a careful reading as an important platform for a broad discussion about reconceptualizing higher education and what we might do as continuing higher education to advocate and even agitate for change. Keep in mind, for example, the market orientation of the paper’s analyses and recognize alternative discussions on issues such as the cost of higher education.  For many, higher education is not becoming more expensive because of costly administration. It is becoming more costly because of declining governmental support. Remember that in adopting market approaches, we embrace the opportunities of great gains for some while sometimes tolerating the risk of lesser quality learning for others. While various particularly distinguished leaders, counting among them leaders such as former Harvard president Summers, ascribe strongly to a market-oriented paradigm, other leaders are willing to question its application to the higher educational context. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, in their highly regarded book, Academically Adrift, argued forcefully that market-oriented reforms of education have not always had positive effects:

Neoliberal policy makers who have advocated for increased privatization and market-based educational reforms have produced a system that has expanded opportunity for all. What . . . policymakers have missed, however, is that market-based educational reforms that elevate the role of students as “consumers” do not necessarily yield improved outcomes in student learning (2011, p. 137).

So as we acknowledge the globalized and technology-driven world of higher education that is coming, we should remain aware of what this new world, with its changes to universities, might mean for the reasons continuing higher education exists.



Arum, R., & Roska, J. (2011). Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Barber, M., Donnelly, K., & Saad Rizvi. (2013). An Avalanche is Coming: Higher Education and the Revolution Ahead. London: Institute for Public Policy Research.

Howell, S., Williams, P., & Lindsay, N. (2003). Thirty-two trends affecting distance education: An informed foundation for strategic planning. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 6(3).

Neem, J. (2012). A university without intellectuals: Western Governors University and the Academy’s future. Thought & Action: The NEA Higher Education Journal, Fall, 63-79.

Scull, W., Shearer, R., Ahluwalia, A., Ugras, J., & Clinefelter, D. (2013). Public universities and private partners: Case studies and conversations about the possibilities and pitfalls in innovative public and for-profit collaboration. Paper Presented at the UPCEA 98th Annual Conference, Boston, MA.

Scull, W., Shearer, R., Ahluwalia, A., Ugras, J., & D. Clinefelter. Partnerships for nonprofit institutions: A worthwhile endeavor? Evolllution Magazine. Retrieved from

Scull, W., Shearer, R., Kendrick, D., & Offerman, D. (2011). The landscape of quality assurance in distance education. Continuing Higher Education Review, 75(1), 138-152.

Smith, S. (2013). Sir Steve Smith Responds to Barber’s An Avalanche is Coming.

Retrieved from

WICHE Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (2013). Principles of good practice for higher education institutions serving adults at a distance. Retrieved from


(c) 2013 W. Reed Scull, Associate Dean and Director, Outreach School, University of Wyoming, Laramie, WY

This article was originally published in the 2013 edition of the Continuing Higher Education Review.