The bigger picture: what will the HE sector look like in the years ahead?

When an institution is reviewing its distinctiveness, one of the important sources of evidence to consider, as we highlight in The Distinct Framework, is what other universities and colleges are doing and are likely to do in the near future.


Having considered what other universities and colleges are doing and are likely to do in the near future, the next step is for an institution to consider the likely demand that it can expect for its courses, research and other services. The future is never certain, of course, but here we highlight some recent research reports which offer scenarios for the size and shape of the sector in the years ahead.

  • Since October 2010, Universities UK has been facilitating a major scenarios project Futures for Higher education. As well as providing materials to support institutions that want to conduct their own scenario planning exercise in-house, the project has produced a report - which can be found at: - on recent changes that UK higher education has experienced (in terms of finance, student numbers and methods of delivery); this includes projections of a possible vision for the future. Institutions may find this useful when thinking about the context in which the distinctive position they develop today may be expected to operate in the years ahead.
  • Another substantial scenario planning exercise, drawing on the opinions of more than thirty experts in higher education, was recently sponsored by the LFHE: This research explores two options for the shape of the sector in 2025: a new binary divide created by the decisions made within institutions as a result of funding changes from 2012 which have created a more marketised system; and increased government funding (envisaged as being introduced from 2015 as a response to potential institutional failures earlier in the decade and higher levels of investment in higher education seen in other countries) and, with it, direct control of the sector. This second model, the report predicts, would generate a three tier system, with six ‘super’ research-intensive universities, around 40 Grand Universities (large regional universities offering teaching and research) and about five private providers. The researchers are clear that these are just two possible scenarios; neither may come into being, but they can still provide a useful framework for institutions to use when carrying out their own strategic decision-making, such as those concerning distinctiveness. A full report of their findings will be available from the LFHE website.
  • One of the underlying issues affecting any organisation that offers goods or services is the total size of the potential market for those things that it offers and, related to that, the share of that market it expects, or wishes, to attract. In higher education, undergraduate education of home students is a core activity for almost all institutions; participation has been increasing steadily over number of years and we are now approaching a national demographic dip in the number of people turning 18 each year. The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) produces annual reports which analyse the data and consider these and other issues of supply and demand for higher education in the years ahead.

Identifying and communicating a distinctive identity will, for most, be a long process. Further, the identity that an organisation captures and articulates will need to last for at least ten years if it is to have any impact, given that the people who gain impressions of universities (alumni, parents of students, and so on) hold on to those opinions for a long time. Given the longevity of effort required to stake a claim for distinctiveness, therefore, it is likely to be helpful to consider these (and other) possible future scenarios. We hope you find them useful.

Topics: The case for change.