Universities of the future

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.

Explore posts in the same categories: higher education, university

8 Comments on “Universities of the future”


  1. I am in the same boat, my two boys are slightly younger than your daughter but I am still thinking “what will they do / what will they be able to do in 17/18 years time?”

    Will we still have Universities, will they still work and educate in a way we can look back to 2010 and say “that’s where X Uni came from”?

    Honestly, I can say that the UK HE sector needs, and will get, an overhaul. The question is when, how bad will it be (for those of us still working in it, and will it actually work for the student … ?

    Thanks for this very insightful and thought provoking post.

    All the best, David

  2. Ernie Ball Says:

    my daughter will begin her studies equipped with a computer that will have more processing power than her own mind

    This statement is arrant nonsense and calls into question everything else you have to say. What sort of processor does your daughter have?


    • Isn’t that somewhat harsh, Ernie? Isn’t Robert simply saying that computing power is developing rapidly? And even if how he says it could be questioned literally, what difference does it make to the value of his other points? Aren’t you dismissing them rather casually? And is that a good academic approach?


      • Processing (or cognitive) power could be considered in a number of ways. I meant in terms of raw neurons vs. transistors, but the specific measure considered is irrelevant to the trend. It is not so long ago that a good memory was considered an essential part of an rounded intellect. Now that all knowledge is a Google away, we have conveniently forgotten that. I expect that as time goes on, our definitions of human intelligence will continue to narrow to exclude what computers can do better than us, until the point becomes moot.

        As our host notes, the four trends are more or less independent of each other (although some are loosely coupled). I expect by late century to be shown utterly wrong about one (which one!) and to have missed a fifth entirely.

  3. Vincent Says:

    Is there not the possibility that there will be further expansion of the RCSI model where the professional body is both the setter of the tasks and the awarder of the scroll. Not like the current silliness where the University costing a fortune but cannot accredit to the profession.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: