What is the future of Higher Education?

Posted in: Education, Higher Education, University of Bath

As we look ahead to the new academic year, the Business and Society blog is spotlighting The International Centre for Higher Education Management. Throughout the month of September we'll feature research which looks at university leadership, management and policy. 

Dan Davies is the Director of Higher Education Management Programmes at the University of Bath School of Management. Here he reflects on the future of higher education, predicting five key trends. This piece is adapted from a presentation he gave to the University of Pretoria Programme for Academic Leadership in March 2022.

It’s always dangerous to predict the future, as one can end up looking rather silly. Current trends can’t always be extrapolated with any degree of confidence, and futuristic thinking based on technological change generally fails to take social change or other factors into account. Then there are ‘black swan’ events like Covid-19, which has arguably changed higher education more and faster than any other single factor in the recent past. An alternative approach to prediction is scenario-modelling, which acknowledges the many uncertainties and unforeseen events that might affect current trends. I’ve identified five trends - some of them long standing, some still emerging – which I think are likely to affect the future of HE in the next decade or so. Quite how things will be affected is still open to question, which is why I’m going to pose a couple of scenarios for each. Clearly these aren’t the only trends I could have chosen, but they are linked to other key themes such as entrepreneurialism, sustainability, internationalisation and decolonisation, as I’ll try to show.

  1. Massification is perhaps the most striking trend in HE over the past 30 years. In 2000 there were around 100 million students enrolled in HE worldwide; in the first 20 years of this century that number had increased by two and a half times and is projected to reach around 600 million by 2040. HE is shifting from being an elite minority activity – with only around 15% of the eligible population participating in 1995 – to one with wide participation of students from every ethnicity, economic and social background (an average of 36% by 2016 predicted to climb above 50% by 2040). This is a wonderful achievement that speaks of aspiration for all, but presents governments and universities with significant challenges. Of course, access to HE is not equally spread geographically. As the urban population overtakes the rural worldwide we will see an increasing educational divide between neighbourhoods with the highest access to HE and those with the lowest – in both the UK and US this is gap is now over 30%. This educational difference manifests itself in social and political attitudes – in the 2016 US election for example, two thirds of white non-graduates voted for Trump, compared with less than half of white graduates. Because university education gives access to better jobs this is also representative of a growing economic gap between rich graduates in urban areas and poor non-graduates in rural areas, who can see themselves as the victims of globalisation. Their anger at being left-behind manifests itself in many ways, for example in voting for populist politicians who wage ‘culture wars’ against the so-called ‘liberal elites’ seen as represented by the university sector.

This brings us to our first pair of future scenarios: are we going to see an increasing geographical and political gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in HE, or can new forms of online education and satellite campuses spread these economic and cultural benefits more widely?

  1. The second trend which has accelerated in the last decade is the sense that the global power in higher education is shifting away from the traditional Western colonial academy towards East Asia, particularly China. As recently as eight years ago the global rankings were dominated by US and UK universities, with no Asian universities having ‘world class’ status. Yet today we see Tsinghua and Peking knocking on the door of the top 10 and look almost certain to displace some well-known Western brands in the next decade. It used to be generally acknowledged that it takes decades if not centuries to build a world-class status for a new university, yet the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen – established in 2011 - has just overtaken the University of Bath in the THE World University Rankings. The growth in research publications from Asia is similarly spectacular and has been further boosted by Covid-19 vaccine research. In fields such as artificial intelligence, China has already overtaken the US in research productivity. There is a link here with the decolonisation of HE - the colonial language of English has dominated academic publishing in the internet age, yet the proportion of scientific papers available only in Chinese is rising. Another interesting example of decolonisation – or perhaps ‘reverse colonisation’ given that India was once a British colony – is the recently-announced intention to set up International Branch Campuses of Indian Institutes of Technology in the UK.

Here, then, is our second pair of future scenarios: is this Eastern power shift inevitable? Or is the traditional Anglo-Saxon HE power base too strong to be seriously disrupted by Asian growth?

  1. The disruption of the neo-colonial ‘core and periphery’ in academic research might be further facilitated by my third trend towards Open Science. This is the movement in which the academy makes its research freely available to the communities it serves and Global South researchers gain free access to knowledge in the form of open datasets, held in repositories such as Africarxiv. The European Research Area initiative Plan S is making ‘gold’ open access much more affordable for authors, whilst the rise of ‘green’ open access – whereby pre-print versions are held in university repositories without a paywall – is beginning to level the playing field for researchers around the world to participate in ‘global science’. Open Science doesn’t just end with open data and open access; it can also extend to freely-available coding, and there have even been calls for all HE knowledge - in the form of curriculum, pedagogy and teaching materials – to be made open access. This might pose a considerable disruption to the business model of universities, yet it makes sense if we see knowledge as a ‘public’ rather than ‘private good’.

So, does Open Science really offer a rebalancing of the global research environment? Or will vested interests such as academic publishers continue to limit access to knowledge through paywalls or other charging mechanisms?

  1. The notion of making all teaching materials Open Access could be seen as part of a wider movement towards the ‘unbundling’ of various components of the HE experience. This includes such trends as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), microcredentialism and life-long learning as an alternative to attending an institution called a ‘university campus’ for three or four years. Of course, this is also linked to the privatisation and disruption of the HE market associated with our earlier trend of ‘massification’, with the entry of multiple providers of both learning and the community elements of the university experience. Unbundling is closely associated with the drive towards employability, which includes employers setting up their own HEIs to provide engineering degrees to their future employees.

The response of universities to the unbundling trend – our fourth pair of scenarios - can be one of antagonism and protectionism, or of embracing the trend and collaborating with the new market entrants, such as provided by the example of Imperial College London linking with the Dyson Institute of Engineering.

  1. Of course we couldn’t discuss the future without mentioning so-called digital transformation. Universities are already using big data analytics – including data warehouses and lakes, machine learning, predictive algorithms and visualisation – to support decision-making about admissions; student engagement and learning; risk of drop-out; choice of international partners, and of course finance. And then of course there’s the holy grail of generalised AI (click), facilitated by neural network computing. This can already write essays which are undetectable by anti-plagiarism software and mark these essays, which might seem like good news for academic faculty with large and tedious marking loads, but aside from the threat to jobs this rather negates the purpose of assessment. So perhaps we can simply measure student’s learning gains by measuring their growth in neural connections? And whilst most computerised teaching is currently behaviourist and mechanistic, an AI algorithm which can learn how to teach better is clearly a threat to us all.

So to our final pair of scenarios: are we all doomed to redundancy, or is there something special about human interaction in the learning process which AI can never replace?

So, these are my predictions. They’re almost certainly wrong, but one of the joys of working in higher education is this fascinating mix of the cutting-edge and the archaic. Universities look both forwards and backwards, but we also need to look outwards lest we miss what’s going on in the society around us and retain our central role in knowledge creation for the public good.

Posted in: Education, Higher Education, University of Bath


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