The egalitarian, come-all universities of today may in many respects be unrecognisable to the undergraduates of 30 years ago. Go even further back, and 50 years ago universities were the exclusive preserve of the educational elite, research and academia.
While modern-day tertiary education still features theoretical physics on many an Australian curriculum, you’ll also find classes and research on everything from wine-making to the geography of surfing. Today’s universities provide many thousands of people with education, while still playing a leading role in shaping thinking and solutions for the world’s most wicked problems. Increasingly, they’re also connecting across communities and sectors, integrating truly multi-dimensional experiences and ideas to shape thinking for the future.
The next steps for universities are still in evolution, as the digital world becomes an increasing force in both shaping and threatening the institution of higher education. It is very likely that universities will continue to maintain their vital roles in education and research long into the future, but the way in which these functions will change and adapt to the digital age will determine the extent of their success. I see digital evolution as the key to reaching vastly greater potential new student bodies, deeply enhancing student engagement, exponentially accelerating research, and providing exciting new pathways to collaboration with other sectors and the community at large.
The evolving workforce
The needs of the future workforce are changing very quickly. In the next three decades, this vast and inexorable pulling force will demand that universities provide access to education for a higher volume and a greater diversity of people. Universities will not only train the next generation workforce, they will be required to help retrain a many-perspectived workforce for the digital age, and keep up with the latest technologies to ensure this education is engaging, effective, and cost-efficient.
This shift also brings potential for tertiary institutions to more meaningfully embed themselves into Australians’ everyday lives; informing and empowering citizens to fully participate in their democratic society.
With so many more alumni, universities could become places for people to return regularly as their career and role in society morphs and matures.
Alumni, through the filters of their experience in diverse sectors and jobs could be contributing, learning new skills and interacting as members of the university community well beyond their degree. This could become a powerful new tool to reach beyond academia and engage more meaningfully with industry, government, the arts, the caring economy, and other spheres of society.
Growing inter-connected communities
Social media has transformed the way in which we connect and socialise and universities could better exploit digital interconnection and improve student outcomes using the online space and directly incorporating behaviours and tools students are using socially. This would lead to better and more opportunities for networking, inter-student mentoring, and direct access to international experts.
It’s likely we’ll take it even further, with fully on-demand access to high quality, well-produced, engaging, open source content providing flexible study options and a complete reshape of the way classes are delivered. Pairing this on-demand approach with a social media or crowd-sourced type rating system will quickly create strong market pull for more high quality content and ensure learning is fun and accessible.
Virtual reality, increased internet connectivity and even 3D printing will allow for remote education to not only provide the theoretical knowledge to students in regional and rural areas, but to bring to life the practical experiences that students on campus receive too.
Imagine studying biology and using virtual reality to digitally participate in dissections in real time. Or as a long-distance engineering student, being able to build a scale model of a bridge, scan the dimensions and send them to your supervisor to 3D print for examination.
Adaptable education and research
Rapid technological advances are changing the way we work and leading to new jobs that look quite different to traditional roles. We need an adaptable workforce and an adaptable education and training system to cope. Some universities are already exploring how they package and deliver their content to support this. By 2040 it will no longer be plausible to undertake a single 4-year degree and hold a job in that field for the entirety of your career.
New tools and technologies will result in new researchable areas and universities will continue to be at the forefront of this work. However, technology is also changing research methodology, and the use of big data and modelling is increasingly replacing or significantly enhancing real world experiments, surveys and interviews. For example, in some areas of social science surveys and interviews are being replaced by huge datasets, mined for patterns and used to inform better city design, more efficient public transport and improved access and delivery of services.
Where we once had to capture, tag and semi-frequently recapture and measure animals to study their ecology, we are already using GPS tracking technology to remotely monitor and manage our most vulnerable wildlife.
Beyond the research itself there, is the capacity for large scale collaborations on our biggest global challenges. Sharing data and working together to analyse changes in climate on a global scale will one day not only predict the future of our climate, but perhaps even help us reverse adverse changes and control the weather itself. These massive undertakings and grand collaborations require the traditional university to be more than just an institution servicing its local students, instead becoming part of a massive inter-connected local, national and international network.
With the right vision, leadership and investment, Australia’s universities have the potential to super-charge education, research and community.
Universities need to embrace their role as change-informers and change-makers, and to evolve to be as exciting and revolutionary in 2040 as the ‘university of today’ appears to mid-century students of yesterday.
Kylie Walker is CEO of Science & Technology Australia, Chair of the Australian National Commission for UNESCO, and co-Chair of the National Research and Innovation Alliance. She specialises in connecting scientists and technologists with governments, business, media and society – skills built over many years in senior federal communication and advocacy roles in the science and health sectors.
Kylie’s a passionate campaigner for gender equity and is a proud member of the board of the ACT Domestic Violence Crisis Service and the steering committee for NOW Australia.
She’s also been a Press Gallery journalist for Australian Associated Press and the ABC, and is a visiting Fellow at the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science (CPAS).