Towards the Virtual University

Towards the Virtual University

Paolo Bianco

When I am asked to talk about the future I look back at the past, then I take a good objective look at the present, see how things have evolved and apply the same trend as a bearing for a vision into the future. I intend to do the same now.

University as we know it

Let’s start from the beginning. Universities as we know them started in Europe, on the newly found optimism and belief in education back at the beginning of the last millennium, and the first one having such name is the University of Bologna, established in 1088 AD. Back then, students were travelling from other countries to join the university and their organisations had most of the weight in defining the way a university operated, also gaining a considerable social bargaining power in the place (city, town) that physically hosted the university. The main impact of universities on the society was through the contribution of the students once they were back working in society. Furthermore, local authorities could benefit from advice and consultancy from the professors for local matters and that was mostly it.

My time at university

Fast forward to the time of me being at university, at the end of the same millennium. All-in-all little had changed in the basic operation and concept, apart from: 1) a wider recognition and impact of professors and researchers, due to the faster communication means, 2) a wider consciousness in the society of what university is and what it means to join one and, more importantly, 3) public funding that provided a far greater part of the population the opportunity to go to university. Additionally, the business community had grown more and more conscious of the advantages of innovation with respect to competitors. That was “my” present.

Skip forward twenty years to nowadays

The importance of research and impact on society, as well as its recognition by the wider society, has grown steadily, accelerated by faster and easier communication. Yet, something that I noticed in my days at university has grown far broader and larger today, which I think this needs to be taken into account when taking a look at the future.

Whilst the basic concept of the university is still the same (an educational organisation consisting of students benefitting from the knowledge passed to them by a body of professors, which is underpinned by research carried out to improve the body of knowledge), the modus operandi has changed dramatically in a more diffused and outreaching way. Once the university was strongly localised and characteristic of a place. Nowadays university courses can easily reach students from a distance, even in other countries, by means of internet and on-line lectures. Even complete master degrees done through distance learning are more and more common.

The concept of the university as a physical place is evolving toward a mixed mode, at a location and online, the latter is still growing and competing in importance with the former (e.g. the Open University in UK is one of the largest in Europe by number of students and most of them are online). Likewise, the link to the city or town where the university was born still remains – in most cases also in the name – but is starting to increasingly assume the value of a brand of the specific culture of the university that bears it.

Another element growing more diffuse is the offer of the university to non-full time students. Historically, the offer has been focused on full-time students that were attending classes and sometimes on part-time workers. Nowadays the offer is far wider, reaching into users who have a full time job and are part-time students. To a far greater extent, universities are offering just short courses to be held either at the company site or online for its employees. Concepts of “Lifelong Learning” and “Continuous Education” that emerged during my time at university are now fully implemented and part of everyday life. Therefore, universities are moving beyond being located in a place, the town/city, nor in a specific time of someone’s life (the time of being a student) towards a more diffused model, reaching far beyond the local town/city and being present throughout the lifetime of those who wish so.

Fast forward to 2040

Regarding the general model at the core of university, I expect it to stay the same, no big surprises: students learning, professors teaching, researchers researching. Much in the same way, I expect that the constant trend of increasing importance of research and the adoption of its results by the wider society will continue, with improved communications. Regarding the shift towards a more diffused model the trend is exponential and new communication technologies are bringing it to newer and newer heights, blurring our sight as we look into the future. However, I will attempt to provide a vision…

Following such a trend, I’d expect a new sort of university operating mode, where the university travels with the student, the professor and the researcher and iterations among them will be progressively more “virtual” as opposed to “in person”.

It will be possible to attend lessons, teach and research virtually anywhere while still keeping connected with all the rest of the university community.

It will be possible that universities will open their offices/sites closer to stakeholders that could make use of their activity (trainings, research). Today campus offices of large companies embody the interest of a company in a particular research activity and, on the other hand, researchers can spend some time in a company.

In 2040, I’d expect there will be also something like university offices (either physical or virtual) on company sites, both for research purposes as well as in training employees. Also, I see the operations of most successful universities expanding globally, heavily leveraging on available communication technologies to seat exams and dissertations.

The course offerings will still cater to full-time students, however increasingly to a broader range of part-time students, of all ages, with more capability to efficiently deliver know-how to an increasingly diverse audience. As result of this, I’d expect that the online presence of the universities to grow by far in importance, together with numbers of students, compared to attending classes in person at the university physical location. The diffused mode of university will become more far reaching across space and time (the life of students). This would also mean that there will be a growing number of research facilities like CERN – the European Organization for Nuclear Research is one of the world’s largest and most respected centres for scientific research in Switzerland. Its business is fundamental physics, finding out what the Universe is made of and how it works1– where very expensive equipment benefits more researchers from many universities thanks to the improved connectivity.

The ideas and thoughts provided are those of my own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Airbus Defence and Space Ltd

1CERN Accelerating science. Retrieved from


Paolo Bianco, Manager of R&T Co-Operation Engineering of Airbus Defence & Space at Airbus is approaching 20 years of experience in space industry. He started his career at CGS, OHB Italian subsidiary, after a period of free-lancing as project management consultant, and covered various roles as space system engineer and as project manager of technology developments. In 2007, Paolo moved to Astrium, where he joined the electric propulsion team in Portsmouth, soon becoming its team leader. Within the position, he worked on systems for scientific interplanetary missions and kept the team at the world leading edge technology. He then became global R&T cooperation manager for UK and Asia-Pacific. Paolo got involved in the world of Quantum Technologies in 2015 and started investigating and assessing on how to apply them to Airbus operation and products.

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