A Thought-starter

Todd Davey, Max Riedel, Balzhan Orazbayeva and Arno Meerman

According to OECD predictions, the need for higher education globally as well as within industrialised countries will continue to increase[1].

This is only one of the many factors that will influence the future development of universities. As an introduction to the topic of universities of the future, we looked at universities through the lens of global megatrends.  The consultancy firm McKinsey[2] identified four global megatrends, ‘global shifts reshaping the world’, which will impact society over the years to come:
·      Emerging markets and urbanization
·      Trade, people, finance, and data: Greater global connections
·      Accelerating technological change
·      Responding to the challenges of an aging world

We will look firstly at the impact of these megatrends, and subsequently, on what it will mean for universities until 2040.

Emerging markets and the urbanisation megatrend’ will lead to an unprecedented consumer market and the emerging-market cities will deliver half of the global GDP growth[3]. With the economic scales shifting towards the south and east, and cities growing even further in size, where does this leave universities as anchor institutions? Firstly, there are opportunities for universities from industrialised countries to acquire income from tuition (education as an export) and brain-power for excellent research through international students. In this situation, masses of students from emerging nations, seek educational opportunities at higher ranked universities in more established markets such as the US, the UK and Australia. However, as the quality of local universities in emerging markets grows in the coming years, there will conversely be less demand to attend universities in industrialised countries. Nevertheless, opportunities for universities in developed nations to ‘cherry-pick’ the best and most motivated students from emerging markets will remain. The challenge for national governments and to a lesser degree universities will be to retain that talent and thereby maintain their competitive edge in the knowledge society.

Moreover, as the overall population and the middle class is able to afford the costs of education from emerging markets grow, demand for higher education globally will continue to increase despite the population of Western economies starting to decline. This megatrend will primarily benefit local universities in emerging countries as well as the elite universities[4] from industrialised countries or more entrepreneurial universities from the pack of non-elite universities in industrialised countries.
Urbanization will generally favour urban, as opposed to regional, universities. However, following some prominent examples of regional universities closing, regional governments will recognise that their local universities are the engines of their region and part of the solution towards reducing this trend. There will be a realisation that through the loss of regionally-based universities, the ‘brain-drain’ to cities will intensify and the sources of new industry and local jobs will be lost. Resultantly, local governments and industry increasingly fight to save their universities.

The megatrend, ‘Trade, people, finance, and data: Greater global connections’, signals an increasing interconnectivity across the globe and the breaking down of geographical barriers for collaboration. The potential lies in more connected networks of universities, innovation networks including business, supply and open innovation networks as well as movement of students which will create a more polarised higher education sector. This polarisation will further enable the resource-rich and sought-after elite universities to increasingly collaborate with major international companies across the globe supplying them with leading-edge research and talent to solve innovation challenges.

At the same time, ‘the rest’ of the universities will be forced to diversify away, specialise, unite or innovate radically to survive while coping with mass-produced MOOCs and radical new players in the higher education sector such as Coursera, edX and LinkedIn. The successful diversification strategies pursued by the surviving universities will include focusing on (1) emerging needs (e.g. dual-study programmes, lifelong learning), (2) specific emerging technical capabilities (e.g. advanced manufacturing, ICT, artificial intelligence) and (3) specific programme topics (e.g. eco-energy, mobility, security and terrorism, big data management, social entrepreneurship). The will also shift their education emphasis away from deep technical knowledge toward developing more ‘T-shaped’ students with ‘future-proof’ competencies including problem-solving, self-management and entrepreneurship capabilities as well as soft skills and emotional intelligence.

The impact of these previous megatrends will also be influenced by the megatrend “Accelerating technological change”, whose effect will be two-fold. Firstly, as technology such as robotics and AI increasingly replaces jobs relying on high-speed accuracy and repetition in both the blue and white collar fields, the demand for knowledge-intensive jobs demanding cognitive, critical and creative thinking skills of humans[5] will increase as will the need to have higher education degrees. The use of technology is already reducing the amount of routine academic and administrative positions in universities and this trend will continue especially as information through the internet and MOOCs becomes more accessible. Moreover, combined with AI technology, the early years of the bachelor degree will be better and more individually supported by technology, reducing the quantity of lecturers required.

Conversely, there will be a need for more personalised mentoring as well as synthesizing group work and student interaction across disciplines and borders. This too will be partly supported by AI, which will monitor students’ pulse-rate, pupils and facial clues as well as by providing live translations. These developments will also be aided by technology, as screens morph into international portals featuring avatars and realistic holograms of participants as well as new mobility devices, all of which enable better collaboration. This will also put the urbanisation and emerging market trend into a different perspective. In line with Thomas Friedman’s thinking, the world becomes truly flat through the application of virtual, augmented, or mixed reality in higher education.

The loss of jobs to technology will be partly offset by the reduction in the working age population in industrialised countries and the need to ‘respond to the challenges of an aging world’. Despite an increasing retirement age, the jobs of looking after baby-boomers will be partly taken over by technology, however will also require more human-centred health care workers creating a need for human-centric (social sciences and humanities) and health professionals (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Changing employer or even the type of job at an advanced age (e.g. beyond 50) will be more common. Experience will be valued more than today primarily because technology will make information and facts more ubiquitous and experience will be vital to filter out the most useful information and apply it to the task at hand.

The increases in life-spans and the likelihood that workers in the future will need to changes careers multiple times will present universities with significant opportunities. Considering that, there are few over 45 who grew up with today’s technology and most have known the university as it currently is, many will still turn to the university to gain a new skill, reinvent themselves or out of interest as they move into retirement years.

[1] OECD. (2015). How is the global talent pool changing (2013, 2030)? Education Indicators in Focus, No.31, Paris: OECD Publishing
[2] https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/strategy-and-corporate-finance/our-insights/the-four-global-forces-breaking-all-the-trends
[3] https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/urbanization/unlocking-the-potential-of-emerging-market-cities
[4] The use of the term ‘elite universities’ in this article primarily refers to top 100 ranked universities according to any of the major university ranking systems including THE, QS and Shanghai. By the nature of these rankings, elite universities tend to be heavily research intensive institutions.
[5] http://www.machinedesign.com/industrial-automation/yes-industry-50-already-horizon

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