The future is notoriously difficult to predict, but I feel it is safe to say that despite the rapid growth of online learning, physical university campuses will not lose their value in the next few decades. The university experience is not simply defined by academic learning. There is a real appreciation for the social formation that occurs when students are living on campus, having an opportunity to rub shoulders with professors and other students, join clubs and develop social and other soft skills. The fact that so many post-secondary institutes have been investing in student housing, recreational and social infrastructure shows that universities are confident of continued and increased demand for on-campus experiences.
That being said, the next 20 years will see technology becoming increasingly adopted by universities in all facets of the academic experience – from student housing to teaching and learning to research. Canadian universities have lagged somewhat in this area, but research has shown that blended learning – a combination of digital structures and in-person lectures – works best in retaining student attention, and providing ease of access to information. Solely digital platforms have proven to be somewhat less effective, albeit more convenient for those who are unable to be on campus. At the time of writing, University of British Columbia (UBC) student enrolment in distance education and blended courses has increased nearly fourfold since the year 2000, currently standing at about 16,000 students. I expect this number to grow, just as our student population on campus grows.
The students will look different in the year 2040. They will be increasingly diverse, not only in background and culture, but also in age. The university experience will no longer be seen as a one-time four-year rite of passage between high school and adulthood. As technological change accelerates, adults will need to return to campus to upgrade their skills. And older adults will willingly come back to campus to take courses for pleasure or interest as they enter their retirement years.
This change in demographics will necessitate further changes in campus infrastructure and the services we offer our students. For example, facilities will need to be open for longer hours to accommodate working adults, we will need to expand child care services, and we will need to offer services and amenities that appeal to students of all ages, rather than just young adults.
One of the biggest changes in academia over the next 20 years will be an increase in interdisciplinary learning. In many institutions, faculty members and students work in silos 150 within their own departments and faculty. I think the current trend towards collaborative, problem-based research will continue. Multiple UBC successes have been made possible due to interfaculty collaboration; for example, the School of Biomedical Engineering, a strategic partnership between the Faculties of Applied Science and Medicine, which is based on the philosophy that future leaders in biomedical engineering will benefit from a rigorous grounding in fundamental biology combined with in-depth engineering design and computational foundations.
Interdisciplinary research will also increase in the future. Researchers will need to collaborate across departments and across faculties and increasingly with colleagues in other institutions as society looks to academia to help find solutions to global issues such as climate change.
“Universities have never been the so-called ivory tower institutions of popular myth, but in the future, they will be called upon to be even more accountable and respondent to the needs of the community”
Business leaders are looking for employees who are educated and adaptable; political leaders are looking for help in addressing social issues; parents are looking for a good education for their children; students themselves are looking for an education that prepares them for an increasingly uncertain world. It will be up to us to balance these sometimes-conflicting demands.
Despite the naysayers, universities will continue to be needed and relevant to the needs of the future. The university will still be here in the year 2040. It will differ in many ways, but it will still be recognizable as an important part of the community.
Santa J. Ono is the President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of British Columbia. Prior to his appointment in 2016, he served as president of the University of Cincinnati and in 2015, Inside Higher Education named him America’s most notable university president in 2015. In 2016, the American Council on Education awarded him the Reginald Wilson Diversity Leadership Award. As a professor of medicine and biology, Professor Ono has worked at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, University College London, and Emory universities. He was also inducted by Johns Hopkins into its Society of Scholars, and as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Inventors, USA. Professor Ono’s research encompasses the immune system, eye inflammation and age-related macular degeneration.