Will the university world change utterly?
Attempting to gaze into the future can be an amusing pastime. Generally predictions of how the world will look in a few years from now turn out to be dramatically wrong. It’s not that things don’t change, sometimes dramatically – but rather they tend to change in unexpected ways. So for example our household appliances, remarkably, do pretty much the same things they did in the 1950s, with only minor functional changes (though rather different electronics under the cover); this has confounded most futorologists from previous decades, who expected that by now appliances would have advanced dramatically and become much more automated and with major converging technologies. Our housing is still more or less the same as it was half a century ago.
But then again, information technology has taken off in a way few predicted, as has entertainment.
So what about higher education? Well, it has changed in some key respects. It is more inclusive (though not sufficiently so); it attaches a much higher priority to research; it has begun to use new technology in interesting ways. All of that sounds fundamental, but in reality it isn’t. Universities would still be totally recognisable to anyone visiting us from the past, even the quite distant past.
So, how realistic is it to expect that over the next decade or so they will change beyond all recognition? That is the question we are invited to ponder by Jane Shaw, president of the American-based John W.Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, in an essay in which she draws out an imagined timeline for universities in the United States between now and 2020. Some of what she predicts is really just a response to current demographic predictions, and these things may or may not happen. But here’s something that caught my eye: she suggests that it may become possible to be accredited as a ‘freelance professor’, which would enable the academic concerned ‘to be paid directly by his students and to rent out classrooms at the schools of their choice, as all their classes will be accredited.’
This would suggest the individualisation of academic careers. Professors might no longer be part of an institution, but could run their own private practices. This obviously is borrowed from certain industries in which employees have become private contractors. Might it happen in higher education? Well, you never know, and in particular it is hard to say how the for-profit sector might develop. But mainstream higher education? No, not really. In today’s knowledge-intensive society and economy the key to success is a strategic marriage of pedagogy and scholarship, and individual players cannot make a real contribution to that. It is unlikely that this model will catch on in the way that Jane Shaw suggests.
It seems to me that the change that will come is not the individualisation of academic work, but its development within a highly networked structure, both within and between institutions. And that would be a much more interesting change.