Higher education is in trouble. Even the most prestigious institutions of the world are feeling the impact of spiralling tuition costs, poor graduate job prospects and reliance on international students.

The university system needs a reboot for the volatile, unpredictable and interdependent time we live in. That was true before the pandemic. So what will happen in its aftermath?

Blending online and offline experiences

Universities have adapted their courses and moved to virtual delivery fast. Campuses are unlikely to reopen in the autumn, so it looks like they’ll operate online for the rest of 2020. What about after?

A recent analysis of 60 studies by the Education Endowment Foundation showed that remote learning actually produces results equal to or better than traditional instruction. There’ll be little incentive for institutions to simply switch back after coronavirus, especially given their steep investments in digital infrastructure.

Blended models—combining online courses with occasional in-person experiences—are emerging as the new status quo. This follows a similar workplace trend among fully distributed companies like Ghost, Buffer and Automattic, whose teams work remotely and meet for retreats a few times a year.

The role of institutions

The digital landscape offers universities the chance to build a strong brand, sell learning in fresh formats and serve international audiences at no extra cost per head. New institutions will climb up the ranks and succeed on a global scale. But there are new competitors in the virtual space too.

Last year, a global survey by Pearson found that people take an increasingly “DIY” approach to their education and training. Today’s learners are choosing online resources and short bursts of study over traditional providers and lengthy accreditations.

Online learning influencers like Tiago Forte offer digital courses of around six weeks at a much lower cost than universities. Alternative business schools like Jolt are reworking the MBA concept with new learning frameworks and subscription pricing.

Lifelong learning infrastructure

McKinsey predicts that automation will cause between 75 million and 375 million workers to change occupations by 2030. This will create an uptick in demand for upskilling and retraining. The best future-proofing strategy for universities may be to narrow their focus on lifelong learning.

More than 75% of learners in the Pearson survey agreed that higher education institutions prioritise young people too much and should develop programmes for working adults too. Now is the time to act on that feedback.

Institutions should aim to build long-term relationships with students and help them stay relevant throughout their working lives. Step one is simple: start linking up current activities—like student recruitment and alumni relations—around a shared vision. No new infrastructure necessary.

Shaping tomorrow’s leaders

The mission of higher education hasn’t changed: its purpose is still to nurture and prepare talented people to make a difference in the world. To produce leaders who are resilient and adaptable in the face of global shocks, however, the way they do it needs a rethink.

Some parts of the world are ahead of the curve. At the pan-national African Leadership University, students choose from a menu of challenges facing the world and declare a mission instead of a major. The courses also involve project-based work on that mission within an active company, non-profit or government department.

In the 21st century context, universities have to teach students not just what to learn, but how to learn. Institutions have to focus less on academic conventions and cultural inheritance, and instead build new systems to accelerate innovation and impact in the world.

Education as a force for global equality

Technology has already uncoupled work and location, and it’s doing the same for learning now too. Soon, people won’t have to move countries to receive a globally-relevant education, just like they don’t need to live in a big city to access the best work opportunities anymore.

Talent exists all over the world, but access to higher education has historically been limited for the citizens of many countries. Post-pandemic, online learning has the potential to reduce the barriers to entry, which ultimately improves global equality.

The COVID-19 outbreak is undoubtedly a ‘before and after’ moment for higher education. What comes next can be a radically better and more effective way of equipping people with the skills they need to thrive in the Information Age.

Of course, that outcome isn’t guaranteed—it will take ambition, strategic thinking, long-term planning and collaborative partnerships to make it a reality. But the time to start the journey is right now.