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Our belief is that deep, radical and urgent transformation is required in higher education as much as it is in school systems. Our fear is that, perhaps as a result of complacency, caution or anxiety, or a combination of all three, the pace of change is too slow and the nature of change too incremental.

We need an inspired generation, all of whom are well-educated and some of whom are able to provide the bold, sophisticated leadership that the 21st century demands. We need citizens ready to take personal responsibility both for themselves and for the world around them: citizens who have, and seize, the opportunity to learn and relearn throughout their lives. We need citizens who are ready and able to take their knowledge of the best that has been thought and said and done and apply it to the problems of the present and the future. ...

Here are five possible emerging models of higher education. We admit that we are not certain about any of them. Moreover, the answer in any given case might be a mix of these options – they are not mutually exclusive. The idea is to provoke thought and stir action.

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Model 1: The Elite University With a global brand, a strong endowment, a stellar track record, a history reaching back centuries and stock of famous alumni, a small number of elite universities will continue to attract the stars of the academic firmament, the lion's share of prestigious research grants and the world's most talented students.

This is not to say they won't have to change. Teaching and learning will need to adapt. Technology will need to become an ever-bigger part of the learning process.

These universities will expand globally through partnerships with local institutions and establish remote campuses that strive to deliver the same quality of experience as the original. Yale's expansion into Singapore in association with National University of Singapore (NUS), and New York University's Abu Dhabi campus are prominent examples of this. The fact that the latter received over 15,000 applications for the 150 places in the class of 2016 is an indication of the demand these will generate.

Additionally, elite universities will need to ensure that they personalize students' development to prepare them for leadership and influence. To maintain their elite status, they will need to ensure top-quality peer networking for their students by attracting the world's best and brightest candidates. And, as Gillian Tett, the notable Financial Times columnist reminded us, the matchmaking function of universities, particularly for the elite, will remain important even with the proliferation of online options.

Model 2: The Mass University By taking advantage of globally-developed content and adapting it for their own students, mass universities will be able to provide a good education for the rapidly growing global middle class (and others) who recognize that a high-school education is not enough to provide a passport to the jobs of the future.

These universities will use predominantly online or blended approaches (provided perhaps in traditional collaboration with respected institutions) and cater to hundreds of thousands of students at a time. The variety of courses and learning opportunities will extend far beyond what is offered at a traditional bricks and mortar college, allowing students to customize and build their learning according to their personal interests and passions over a period of time that suits them best.

Some mass universities will emerge from among the classic 20th-century universities in the developed world – shutting their physical doors and moving entirely online as we've seen happen in the newspaper business. Others will be found in the newly-developed world; perhaps, for example, in Brazil which has placed itself at the forefront of developments in online higher education.

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Model 3: The Niche University By definition, of course, each niche university will be different from the others. There are many possibilities. The classic U.S. liberal arts colleges, such as Williams, or Oberlin or Lewis and Clark, surely have a future – the small town, the beautiful campus, the high-quality teaching and the community feel will appeal to some students and it does not take many for them to thrive.

The New College of the Humanities, a new private, for-profit university in the U.K., is seeking, in a way, to replicate this experience in central London. Charging fees roughly double those of England's public universities – £18,000 as compared to £9,000 – (about $28,000 vs. $14,000), it has attracted some talented full-time faculty and a handful of global stars such as Niall Ferguson, and promises "a broader liberal arts curriculum with significantly more content than a standard undergraduate degree." It is still in its first year of operation, so it is too early to say whether it will succeed, but this could turn out to be exactly the kind of niche venture that will succeed.

Minerva University, based in San Francisco, is a bold attempt to cater for elite niche market, but online. It aims to deliver high-quality education from top professors at half the price of traditional schools. Lectures will be delivered through video to students in seven countries and supported by debate and discussion facilitated by the professors. The niche here is the top echelon of students in emerging markets who can't study at elite institutions owing to cost or visa issues.

Model 4: The Local University Around the world there are many universities which play a key role in the constant renewal of the local or regional economy through the opportunities they provide for the development of skills in the workforce and for applied research.

The Institute of Business Management (IOBM) and the Institute of Business Administration (IBA) are two examples from Pakistan. Together they have provided many of the highest-calibre business professionals leading the corporate and services sectors in Karachi, the economic hub of the country.

Medical schools will always be needed to train doctors. Vocational training institutes will continue to train technicians and engineers for industry.

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Model 5: The Lifelong Learning Mechanism Nandan Nilekani, one of the founders of the highly successful Indian company Infosys, has taken on a project for the Indian government with immense implications. Its goal is to register as many of the 1.2-billion people in India as possible on a database in the cloud. Already around 300-million are registered. Now imagine that those 300-million could add their educational and career achievements and qualifications to the database. Imagine, too, that some of them sign up for a mentoring program with an organization that specializes purely in that. Imagine that others take a series of modules from different academic institutions around India and the world and find yet another institution to accredit that combination of courses as a degree, perhaps because yet another organization has provided an assessment, using the best computer game technology, that really tests not just deep learning of content, but problem-solving and leadership skills and/or potential.

Here we would have people who had successfully completed higher education without ever attending a university, who draw on a range of services, most of which are not provided by a university. Universities around the world have been awarding honorary doctorates for exceptional performance in a wide variety of fields for decades – it's plausible to think that this idea could be extended for bachelor's and master's degrees as well.

The possibility of unbundling the classic university opens up numerous possible options for rebundling the elements. No doubt there will be numerous experiments globally – some will fail, some will flare and die down, others will endure. Ultimately, parents, young people and governments will need to make difficult choices about how to allocate resources to ensure development, growth and learning that results in value creation for the individual and society.

Sir Michael Barber is chief education advisor at Pearson, Katelyn Donnelly is executive director of Pearson's Affordable Learning Fund and Saad Rizvi is executive director of efficacy at Pearson. This is an excerpt for a report they wrote for the U.K.'s Institute for Public Policy Research titled "An Avalanche is Coming: Higher Education and the Revolution Ahead." The full report can be found here:

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