The latest QS world university rankings have been released and, as the estimable Stephen Matchett puts it, universities have been spinning away like a warehouse full of Shane Warnes to demonstrate just how well they have performed.

And why shouldn’t they? Higher education is becoming, if it isn’t already, a tough old business and competitive advantage must be sought wherever it may be found. HECG personally wishes all universities well in their endeavours to be the best they can be.

Today, however, universities are not just competing against each other. Other players are entering the market place – for that is what it is, even if traditionalists would like to resist that conception – and it seemly likely that over time these new entities will put pressure on even the finest institutions.

One of the problems facing universities is that they have inherited a teaching model that does not always serve well the individual student in the lecture theatre and tutorial. As Graeme Wood puts it in a recent article in The Atlantic:

“In the past half millennium, the technology of learning has hardly budged. The easiest way to picture what a university looked like 500 years ago is to go to any large university today, walk into a lecture hall, and imagine the professor speaking Latin and wearing a monk’s cowl. The most common class format is still a professor standing in front of a group of students and talking. And even though we’ve subjected students to lectures for hundreds of years, we have no evidence that they are a good way to teach.”

Wood’s article examines the innovative offerings of Minerva, which boasts that it is dedicated to ensuring its students “are equipped to fulfil their enormous potential”. All its courses, it says, are taught in intimate seminars with direct professor engagement. Active learning is central to its pedagogy, so there are no large introductory classes, nor lectures of any kind. “Every class is an opportunity to interact with your professor and a small group of your peers.”

Meanwhile, the not-for-profit Khan Academy is offering free higher education for “anyone anywhere”, with the focus, as its says in its blog, being to develop new, personalized practices centred on the individual student.

Similarly, the relatively new Coursera – “an education platform that partners with top universities and organizations worldwide” – aims to empower individuals “with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in”.

Fine words and noble aspirations, to be sure, and it is yet to be seen whether these new organisations can thrive and prosper. Again, HECG wishes them well.

One key element common to these new players is the focus on the individual student and the communities from which they come. Such a focus is not always easy for large, traditional universities, mostly because they are large and traditional and work within inherited educational models.

This is not to say they are ignorant of, or blind to, the needs of the individual, but that struggling individuals can get lost within large structures.

Today’s students, however, are more market-savvy than ever before and many come to higher education with high expectations of individual attention should they need or demand it.

We at HECG believe that students should come first. Those universities that best meet the needs and expectations of students will achieve the greatest success. This is not a platitude but a reasoned response to the changing circumstances outlined above. To find out more about us go here and to contact us go here.