Challenger Universities pt. 3a: The challenger university landscape

Mario Barosevcic
Emerge Edtech Insights
11 min readApr 23, 2020


This Emerge article series, researched in collaboration with our extensive network of education leaders, offers insights and practical advice for founders and university leaders bold enough to create new universities.

So, you thought that it was impossible to start a new private, innovative university from scratch? Difficult to do? Yes. Impossible? Definitely not.

This is part 3 of the challenger universities series, giving an overview of the challenger university landscape and creating a blueprint for how to build a strong, differentiated challenger university. Part 1 of this series (here) introduced the rise and opportunities in the higher education landscape, while Part 2 highlighted the resilience of university incumbents (2a), as well as the space (2b) and case (2c) for something new.

Challenger universities need to continue to fill the existing university gaps by offering the pedagogy, experiences and technological solutions that have been so far elusive to many of the long-established, traditional players. To succeed in this extremely challenging pursuit, these insurgents and the forms of their innovation, need to be substantial and sustainable.

So, what do we mean by ‘challenger’ university?

We define challenger universities as full-term, in most cases degree-awarding (or aspiring towards accreditation), institutions that have emerged or fully reinvented themselves in the last couple of decades. They offer a holistic learning experience driven by in-house innovation centred around at least one key innovation and focus area that distinguishes them from traditional organisations.

We use 3 key dimensions to define a challenger university and distinguish it from other educational offerings: length and depth, independence and innovation

Length and depth: 1–4-year holistic learning journeys often equivalent to undergraduate/BA or postgraduate/MA degrees covering a depth of learning outcomes furthering both skills and knowledge. NOT short 3 to 12-month diploma/vocational experiences that are primarily skills-focused.

Independence: organisations that drive innovation in house and have it at their core, and own each part of the value chain from student acquisition, delivery of teaching to student success, rather than relying on or being third parties such as online programme managers (OPMs)or massive open online courses (MOOCs).

Innovation: programmes that have distinguishable features across at least one of the following traits: student experience, student outcomes, programme scalability and target audience.

How do challenger universities fit into the overall university landscape?

Alongside age and how long they have been around for, we categorise the global university landscape against the four above key dimensions against which universities can innovate:

  • Student experience: Offering a student-inspired, personalised, adaptive and pedagogy informed experience
  • Student outcomes: Delivering objectives-driven, employer informed and focused modular degrees
  • Teaching at scale: Rethinking the role of campus and faculty with a technology-first and often cheaper and more flexible proposition
  • Target audience: Prioritising target populations with offers specifically suited towards life stages, passions, geographies and desired outcomes

Against this classification, all challenger universities innovate against mostly one to three innovation dimensions. Incumbent universities fail to innovate against a single one.

The following market map represents an overview of the university landscape, against 4 quadrants, 6 categories and 11 subcategories, with some of the highest quality and best-known examples selected for each category. Very few, but a slowly rising number of universities earn the label of Challengers or Innovators, a growing number of universities mostly across developing countries are classified as Followers, while the vast majority of the market represents the Incumbents, led by big historic names that the vast majority of the sector copied over the centuries.

  1. Challengers: Moderately to extremely innovative new institutions that offer a combination of new student experiences and unique outcomes propositions all the way through to highly targeted and tailored offers with huge potential for scale
  2. Innovators: Already established organisations, which have been pioneering innovations since their inceptions, way ahead of their time or found ways to reinvent their core traditional offerings and configure themselves for innovation and scale. Deserve their own category, but very much embody the ‘challenger’ ambition, vision and ethos
  3. Incumbents: The oldest HE organisations, representing: a) those few that have set the foundations for traditional university education and maintained their elite status, as well as b) the vast majority of universities that have followed suit with undifferentiated brands and in some cases managed to establish strong regional positions
  4. Followers: Newer organisations that are following the footsteps of the Incumbents by emphasising campus-based education and at times high quality and calibre of teaching staff and research, which has helped some rapidly climb traditional university rankings, usually in their respective geographies, with most failing to carve out meaningful positions in HE

What does the challenger university landscape look like?

“When I heard about London Interdisciplinary School I couldn’t believe that there was finally a non-traditional university opening — one where I would dedicate my three years to something I could be passionate about. What I am passionate about is making a change, even if it’s small… I hope that through LIS I am given the opportunity to reach all my goals and actually leave my footprint in this world. I believe a person is more than a few letters on a piece of paper, and those letters shouldn’t be the sole decider of our futures.”

Zeynep Sahin, prospective student

If you imagine the university of the future — why is it special? What problems does it solve and audiences does it address? How is it unique?

Below we zoom in on the right side of the above university landscape map, focusing exclusively on Challenger universities.

You will observe two things:

Challenger vs Innovator. Challenger universities and Innovator universities are very similar. Age is a key differentiator alongside the presence of physical campuses for Innovator universities, which represent a small share of their student population. Institutions like the Open University and Southern New Hampshire University have been around for a few decades, and deserve a separate status and category name, however, they very much still embody the ‘challenger’ ethos.

Progressives vs Trailblazers. Trailblazer challenger universities represent institutions that have strong potential and visions to achieve large scale and audiences through online core offerings and in some cases heavily reduced price tags. Progressive challenger universities, on the other hand, focus their innovations on the student experience and outcomes while maintaining their reliance on campuses and staff which can limit rapid scaling.

Who are the challenger universities and how are they different?

Universities with no campus. Institutions with no faculty. Fully online enriching social experiences. Programmes with no courses or majors. Learning experiences with no textbooks. Meaningful employment as a default, not exception. Student oriented and co-created experiences. Pedagogically grounded, agile curricula.

The following section goes into a further deep dive highlighting the most exciting challenger universities and their unique value propositions:

1a. Challenger Trailblazers: Extremely innovative, in most cases stripping down fundamental traditional pillars of education including campuses, lectures and/ or faculty, and increasing tailoring of the student offer and potential for scale.

‘Newcomers’: Less than 10 years of age, up and coming names, across various stages on their journeys for obtaining accreditation.

Challenger Trailblazers — Newcomers (<10 y/o)
  • Liberal arts plus a job credential? Future proof! — Foundry College is, in an age of increasing emphasis on hard skills, on a mission to future-proof students’ skills and knowledge. Instead of having to choose between obtaining the broad intellectual tools conferred in a liberal arts program versus the practical knowledge taught in vocational programs, students can gain a broad foundation that helps them grow in their careers, while also obtaining a job credential that will help get them started with their first job
  • A medical degree two-thirds online? Absolutely! — EDU Medical is a two-thirds online and one-third practical medical education experience where individuals across the world can acquire their medical knowledge through highly engaging collaborative online classes and then apply that in practical experiences in hospitals
  • An MBA in your pocket? Sign me up! — Quantic School of Business & Technology is a mobile-first, selective but free if you get accepted, business school designed for the modern leader with a bite-sized, pedagogy-led and industry-relevant curriculum that you can complete on the go

‘Forerunners’: 10–20 years into their existence, household names of the challenger university space, in most cases with accreditation and/or strong brands backed by results and reputable partners.

Challenger Trailblazers — Forerunners (10–20 y/o)
  • No campus? No problem! — Minerva Schools at KGI, started to open its non-campus ‘doors’ to students in 2014 soon after becoming a highly sought-after exclusive university that offers students opportunities to travel the world and explore new cultures, live together and attend all classes online
  • No teachers? Seriously? — Ecole 42’s first school opened in Paris in 2013 generating demand from a massive 70,000 candidates (link) despite its groundbreaking philosophy of not having professors, focusing on peer to peer learning through projects. It is now a global brand in coding education with more than 25 locations and 9,000 students
  • No textbooks, no homework? Yes please! — Hyper Island started in Sweden in 1996 and quickly became a global brand thanks to its real-world industry-focused, learn by doing, experiential learning philosophy, now counting more than 5,000+ alumni and growing aided by its online presence

1b. Challenger Progressives: Moderately to highly innovative, often around the student experience and outcomes, but in most cases still reliant on faculty and physical spaces.


Challenger Progressives— Newcomers (<10 y/o)
  • No boring useless theory? Finally!NMITE and TEDI are organisations that are redefining what it means to study to be an engineer. Instead of learning and memorising theories and then scrambling to get jobs to try and apply them, these organisations offer hands-on, applied, project-based work and help develop real-world ready engineers
  • No ‘course’ or ‘major’? No way! — London Interdisciplinary School is building a reputation for being the only organisation in the UK that will be focused on interdisciplinary studies. Instead of subjects, students will be prepared to tackle some of the most complex problems that we face in the world, through a combination of knowledge and methods from the arts, sciences and humanities. More on them in our post here
  • No fees and you pay me to study? You must be kidding! — Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology is a university built by Dyson, a leading UK household goods manufacturer, that decided to tackle its talent shortages by building its own university. Students study and then work 3 days a week applying everything they learned from professors and existing engineers at Dyson


Challenger Progressives — Forerunners (10–20 y/o)
  • A no-fluff, career-focused degree? — BPP university represents a unique, practical degree offering designed to equip students with practical knowledge and skills crafted towards their careers of choice, covering industries such as law, accounting, banking, dentistry and nursing

2a. Innovator Trailblazers: Relatively new, but by now established brands that have set standards when it comes to innovation from within, in particular focusing on online learning, teaching at large scale and tailoring towards working adult audiences

Innovator Trailblazers — Grownups (20–100 y/o)
  • Southern New Hampshire University (USA) — started its journey as a traditional campus-based university in 1932, reinvented itself during a period of struggle and, in 2009, focused on online courses for working adults, becoming one of the fastest-growing HE institutions in the world with an enrolment of 132k+ students
  • The Open University (UK)— was established in 1969 and for decades was light years ahead of its time. As an institution that started offering education over TV and radio during late-night hours, it transformed into, at its peak, the largest university in the world with more than a quarter-million fully online students, in most cases working adults taking part-time degrees
  • Western Governors University (USA) — started in 1997 as a fully online university focused on competency-based learning, and in a very short amount of time, grew to over 100k students with online satellite affiliated campuses across a few states

2b. Innovator Progressives: Established institutions that have managed to innovate with existing structures and create unique student experiences and outcomes propositions with campus foundations at their core, but also a growing online student presence.


Innovator Progressives — Grownups (20–100 y/o)
  • Coventry University (UK) — having only become accredited as a higher education institution in 1992, Coventry University has become one of the fastest growing universities in the UK. It has picked up awards as the highest-ranked modern university in the UK and fourth place in the first global online rankings, building a large base of students through its satellite and online-only offers through the Coventry University Group


Innovator Progressives — Veterans (100+ y/o)
  • Arizona State University (USA) — was founded in 1885 and over time has become one of the rare organisations in the world that can offer everything to everyone, with its inclusive philosophy counting huge campuses and a large online presence, an incredibly broad student offer, and culture of innovation and partnerships
  • RMIT University (Australia) — was founded in 1887 as a night school offering art, science and technology courses in response to the industrial revolution in Australia. Today it is the largest dual-sector provider in Australia (offers both vocational and higher education), with a highly regarded, large and uniquely work-ready and industry connected online student offer

Stay tuned for a new article in the series every week. Next week we move into the second piece in this part of the series. Having laid out the landscape of challenger universities and introduced some examples, we will now show how challenger universities are and can innovate to build quality, differentiated offers again the key four pillars of innovation covering: experience, outcomes, scale and target audience.

While starting a new university is probably one of the most difficult and likely to fail ideas that you can have, it is such crazy ideas that excite us at Emerge. If you are a daring founder in this space or a university leader on the path to improving or reinventing the core student experience, we would love to talk and see how we can help. Send me an e-mail on, or feel free to follow me on LinkedIn or Medium and sign up to our newsletter here.



Mario Barosevcic
Emerge Edtech Insights

Principal at Emerge Education. Investing in and writing about the future of education, skills and work.