How to Picture Universities in 2040?

How to Picture Universities in 2040?

Enrique Cabrero-Mendoza

It is evident that the world is currently changing at a speed never seen before. Science and technology are making an impact in all aspect of our lives: healthcare, education, social life, economy, entrepreneurship and government, are some visible examples in a much bigger list. As it is often said, it is not that we are living in times of change, rather in a change of time.

In the context of these whirl – winds, universities – like many other institutions – are going through large transformations that are likely to continue and deepen in the following decades. Furthermore, they are being called to play a crucial role in what is nowadays known as the knowledge society. Doubtlessly, a society guided by scientific knowledge, by its transformation into technological developments and furthermore into innovation within economic, institutional and social structures, requires more robust, intelligent and efficient educational centres. The challenges that universities will face in the coming decades are not insignificant, among the most important ones are the following.

To become a key asset in the process of knowledge generation

Universities must be able to produce scientific and technologic knowledge with positive outcomes for society, the economy and the government. Notwithstanding that each university will possess particular strengths regarding specific types of knowledge production.

Bolstering the knowledge society requires securing an interdisciplinary perspective, relevant for all economic sectors. This is why the idea of short-minded and over-specialised uni versities should be avoided.

Like never before, we must push for a comprehensive conception of what universities should look like in 2040; one that encompasses the attention of real problems and pressing challenges, as well as the delivery of long term solutions. Achieving such ideals requires two things: first, removing all barriers among schools, departments and other bodies which disincentive cooperation among different disciplines; and second, stimulating cross-fertilisation in knowledge production processes, allowing for permanent interaction among research teams and working groups. In the coming decades, those universities unable to generate knowledge in this way will not be able to call themselves that.

To create talent, and not just professionals

Considering that current frameworks are constantly changing and will continue to do so, even faster, in the coming years, new teaching techniques that promote creativity, innovation, and a positive attitude towards permanent learning are an essential condition to fully accomplish the knowledge society that we are currently building. The idea of earning a degree without updating one’s knowledge in the light of new contributions and developments is outdated. As stated by Stiglitz and Greenwald (2014) in their reflection on creating a learning society, the concept of ‘learning by doing’ should be extended to ‘learning to learn by learning’¹. By doing so, universities will not anchor themselves to the idea of being institutions that only validate knowledge and recognise an individual’s capacity to perform certain tasks through degrees. This belief is certainly obsolete, belonging more to an industrial, predictable and stable economy.

The knowledge and innovation-based economy entails talent creation characterised not only by intelligence and creativity but also by the capacity to learn constantly. In 2040, teaching techniques within universities should be characterised by open, horizontal, deliberative, participatory and applied processes. The vertical transmission of information as well as the requirement of memorising data should be eradicated for good; instead, spaces for individual and collective learning for problem-solving should be established. In this context, only a rather small part of the process will take place in classrooms, as the bigger part will result from the interaction with businesses, governments and the society as a whole. Consequently, less concepts and in its place, more observation and learning methods will be needed. In the coming decades, those universities unable to generate these conditions for learning, will not be able to call themselves that.

To foster openness and cooperation within knowledge and learning networks

Increasingly more each day, knowledge is produced within collaboration networks among individuals, institutions, countries and other relevant groups. Scientific and technologic knowledge is being democratised and made reachable for more people. The most important scientific contributions are the result of wide collaboration grids, such as the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), one of the biggest and most complex research organisations in the world, in which tens of countries, hundreds of institutions and thousands of researchers participate.

In the coming decades, learning processes will externalise, as their impact continues to accelerate and reach both the economy and society with multiplying effects. The concept of knowledge society makes reference precisely to the quality of stimulating its social appropriation and rapid dissemination. It is clear that universities will guarantee the quality of knowledge and the robustness of learning. However, as never before they shall put themselves to the task of inserting that knowledge in problem-solving processes. As a result, their collaboration networks should be wide and diverse. The relevance of universities will be valued regarding their proven ability not only to produce knowledge and learning, but also to have an influence in the transformations most needed by society. The value of universities will be measured by their capacity to solve pressing issues and generate social wellbeing along with other actors and networks.

In 2040, universities will heavily rely on their capacity to build strong cooperation networks, as well as to make a positive impact in society through, not only the production but also the dissemination of ideas, information and knowledge. In the coming decades, those universities unable to do that successfully, will not be able to call themselves that.

 1 Stiglitz, J. E., & Greenwald, B. C. (2014). Creating a learning society: A new approach to growth, development, and social progress. New York: Columbia University Press.


Enrique Cabrero-Mendoza holds a PhD in Management Science from HEC Paris. He has written and edited numerous books, articles and book chapters in Mexico, Europe and the Americas. His research interests are in public policy and organisational sociology. He is a level III member of the National System of Researchers, and currently serves as General Director of the National Council of Science and Technology (Conacyt, for its name in Spanish) in Mexico.

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