Guest blog by Robert Cosgrave
Dr. Robert Cosgrave writes on the future of tertiary education at http://tertiary21.blogspot.com/
My daughter is 4 years old. In October 2023 she will probably go to university. What will that university look like? Where will it be? Will it be anywhere?
The 20th century was good to universities, marching them from an elite fringe to the very heart of the information economy. They are the coal mines and steel mills of the information age, with OECD countries counting their output of science and engineering PhDs as keenly as the great powers of a century ago counted their production of dreadnoughts. But there is no guarantee that the 21st century will be so kind. Deep waves of change may carry the institutions to new heights, force them to transform entirely, or move them aside, to join the monasteries and cathedral schools in the history books.
Four great changes will dominate the development of universities in the century ahead. They are global, long term changes, on a scale outside the usual five year horizon of a so called ‘strategic’ plan, or the electoral cycle. These changes are already well underway with such momentum that they are unlikely to be deflected.
The first is demographic. World population is forecast to top out at around 10 billion late in the century. Topping out implies that birth rates and death rates will pass through a point of balance. No longer will each generation be bigger than the last. Conventional ‘college age’ audiences will be declining, and keenly fought over. Universities hoping to grow will do so only with older students. Today, most universities have a ‘Mature Students’ office as a minority interest, at the edge of a campus full of full time young adults. It won’t be long before that is reversed and young ‘first timer’ students are a minority group and the operation of the campus is remodelled to fit with the lives and minds of real grown ups.
The second trend is economic. In this respect, the 20th century was truly remarkable. Per capita GDP increased by a factor of 5 between 1900 and 2000, despite a Great Depression, two World Wars and the Spanish flu, and all the other ailments and woes of the century. A repeat of this miracle would make the world, on average, as wealthy as Norway (one of its richest countries) is today. By 2100, the world will be able to afford near universal tertiary education. India and China are rapidly approaching this transition point, building universities as fast as the concrete can be poured.
But concrete does not a university make. It takes time to turn a smart school leaver into a plausible junior lecturer, and it takes time for research departments in the western model to mature and bed in. The old ‘first world’ model of the university will be hard pressed to scale to accommodate the surge of the new middle class youth of what used to be called the third world. Out of need, something new will take its place. The new ‘gigaversities’ of China, India and Brazil might not command much respect in the staff common rooms of the old NUI, but they will rise to meet that need. In time, they will enter first world markets with degrees that are faster and cheaper than anything we can deliver. My daughters first car may will be a Tata Nano, designed in India. Why not her degree?
The third trend is technological. The death of distance as a factor in education has been predicted since the telephone was invented, but only now are remote classroom tools becoming usable, though fully immersive environments like Second Life are still fringe. Growth in bandwidth and processing power will move these tools into the mainstream over the next ten years, as telepresence suites currently sold to corporates as alternatives to private jets price down into the mass market. Meanwhile, old fashioned jet travel isn’t all that expensive anymore.
In the 1950s my parents had a realistic choice of exactly one university. In 1991, with similar practicalities of cost and travel, I had a choice of four. In 2023, my daughter could reasonably attend any university on earth.
The consequences of this for conventional tertiary institutions, used to steady business from local students, will be devastating. Local students will still come, but increasingly the smart, focused ones will go further afield, either in person via budget airlines, via telepresence, or in a blended format, perhaps meeting for onsite weeks twice a year at a regional campus on a continent near you. Institutions reliant on local students and without a global draw will find themselves relegated, their reputation slowly crumbling as the cream of the crop goes elsewhere.
The fourth trend has potentially the greatest consequences in the long term. By 2023, following the so far solid course of Moore’s law, my daughter will begin her studies equipped with a computer that will have more processing power than her own mind, and, via its connection to the global cloud of networked services, instant access to orders of magnitude more power. While true ‘human like’ self-aware artificial intelligence remains out of reach, this raw processing power is pushing machines into new ground. Composer Emily Howell, a computer programme, not a real person, has moved on from producing acceptable compositions in the style of Bach or Mozart to creating genuinely new work. It isn’t very good, but give her time. If our creations can even write music, what will be left for us to do but to listen to it?
The historical narrative tells us that workers displaced by new technology riot a little, and then go on to find newer, more fulfilling jobs created by the new wealth. Many of today’s best jobs did not exist when I was born. The university my daughter attends may prepare her for a job no one today has thought of yet, working at the centre of a network of increasingly intelligent tools and services. But there is no law that says that new technology will keep creating new jobs for humans as it has in the past. It is an open question whether the university my granddaughter goes to, sometime in mid century, will be able to prepare her for any job at all.