The future university is often termed in the singular. Similarly, the future of libraries assumes a common destiny, as if all libraries, all universities were the same to begin with. This of course, is not the case. Each one is a different piece in the jigsaw that forms the education sector.
Universities in the future will perform in many different ways. As now, there will be institutions focused on teaching and others where research depth, both in terms of staff and income, is the principal aim. In each, the supporting services will reflect these priorities. In particular, libraries and information services will consist primarily of intellectual content (what used to be called books), or large digital teaching platforms. In a few cases, institutions will deliver both teaching on a large scale and research in most disciplines. These ‘dual’ universities will be the most expensive to attend, the hardest from which to obtain the offer of a place, and will be the strongest international brands.
In other words, not much is likely to change at the institutional level except for a considerable increase in pervasive technologies for both research facilitation and teaching. The impact of this on both original academic output and on the student experience is that the future, if it is to be defined at all, will be defined as collaborative.
The greater change, certainly in Western countries will be a reduction in the number of institutions capable of awarding degrees, especially higher degrees. The international university sector will alter dramatically over the next ten years, as a natural effect of the greater concentration of research funding in a smaller group of institutions. These universities will also become more adept at using their research culture to attract and retain students. This will mean they will be more expensive to attend, but the degrees awarded will consequently be viewed as valuable. Many more students will also choose to study further for Masters and Doctoral awards.
The larger body of teaching-led institutions will see mergers and closures. In the UK, there is an astonishing disparity of quality and resources between universities currently planning to charge the maximum £9000 per year at undergraduate level. This will have to be resolved in order to make any sense of choice for students and to ensure that higher education can be clear to employers. Presently, commerce must think that many universities have lost their minds.
In terms of disciplines, the ‘grand’ humanities subjects such as English, History, Classics, Philosophy, Music, Art History, Archaeology and Modern Languages will retain their status at the heart of the research-intensive curriculum. They will though, gradually become ever more interdisciplinary at the higher research level. Again, technology, in terms of the digital humanities will shift from its current position as a quirky sub-discipline to a dominant role in all core fields.
Science, often viewed as more innovative in its use of technology will need to be more radical with its students. Science research is leading edge but much teaching and staff-student contact is very traditional. Students often have to wait until their PhD before they are fully immersed in new work. Many of them never see it. I have seen evidence of this in large institutional surveys, where undergraduates in science are frequently underwhelmed by their experience of teaching. This must and will change.
With greater clarity over the roles of differing institutions, rather than, as is the case now, all universities claiming world-class status, will come a better relationship between education and the wider world. The employment sector will seek out talent from both vocational and research institutions. Universities in the future will also be able to carve out new roles in international relations and politics; a natural development of stronger brand recognition.
Technology partners, such as Google and Apple will be more attracted to universities with an intellectual brand to match their own in retail. This has already begun. iTunesU is usually promoted using Stanford, UCL and Oxford. Marketing of research culture will increase.
Whatever the future holds for our sector it is likely to be an improvement on the current state of affairs, as long as universities themselves are given a strong, open voice at the table of government. That is the one piece of the jigsaw I cannot find. I wonder if anyone will discover it?