Omni: in all ways or places; Omniverse: a universe that is spacio-temporally four-dimensional.
When Clark Kerr coined the term ‘multiversity’ in 1963, he provided a dynamic proposition for the expanded purpose and value of higher education institutions “New knowledge is the most important factor in economic and social growth… What the railroads did for the second half of the last [19th] century, and the automobile for the first half of this [20th] century, may be done for the second half of this century by the knowledge industry: that is, to serve as the focal point for national growth.” Kerr foretold the knowledge economy that was and was to come—that the real growth in economic development would not come through manufacturing or expanded industrialization but, instead, from knowledge and information—and argued that universities would be the engines of that growth: the ‘multiversity,’ serving as a center for teaching and learning, of course, but also for research and engagement beyond the classroom.
Kerr, utilizing William James’ work on the multiverse, compared the multiversity to the university as being like a federal republic to a kingdom, where each component part is both separate and integrated versus where the disparate pieces of the realm merge into one unified whole. And yet, this federated institution was still based on an identity tied specifically to location, mission, and the historic population of that campus (staff and students): an institution in three dimensions (teaching, research, and engagement with the community).
Imagine the future omniversity as a multiversity in four dimensions, without borders to its campus or limits to its academic mission, taking the convening power of the university truly global, creating hubs for teaching, research, innovation, entrepreneurship, and more beyond those previously anchored in local, regional, and national communities, to create a span of impact and influence across the entire globe. The omniversity is a place where location—the institutions’, students’, and academic staff’s—is almost irrelevant. Core functions are delivered in blended formats, engaging an institutional community not bound together via the physical plant of a campus but by a shared institutional mission and outcome orientation. The omniversity will be a major piece in the dynamic puzzle that is the future of the university.
In this rethinking of the constituent parts of a university, the omniversity is an institution that not only capitalizes on the concentration of talent, resources, reputation, and reach under its unified organizational umbrella to drive knowledge creation and dissemination as a broad scale global enterprise, it also has the capacity and agility to innovate and expand its sphere of influence. The omniversity will be a transcendent enterprise of global education reach and impact.
“As the definition of omni above attests—an omniversity will be a university that is “in all ways or places.” And, indeed, such institutions are destined to expand in number and impact, to drive global higher education in the future.”
The omniversity, then, will emerge as a kind of education empire. The inevitable globalization of higher education requires adaptation, however, and universities must continue to evolve to be more: more useful, more agile, more accessible, and more meaningful. If the omniversity emerges as an institution that provides education in formats that span from the most applied short course to the most advanced doctoral program, with multiple modes of delivery and agile pathways for student achievement and research excellence, then the future of the university will be as exciting as its past.
Roberta Malee Bassett is Global Lead for Tertiary Education at the World Bank. Prior, Dr Bassett served as Lecturer in the Centre for Higher Education Management and Policy, University of Southampton, UK. Her experience in university administration includes posts as Assistant Dean at Stanford University and Managing Editor of The Review of Higher Education. She has authored/edited numerous publications related to international higher education. Roberta received her Ph.D. from the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College; M.A. from Stanford University; and B.A. from Columbia University.