University Futures

university-futures1.pngI started a web site in 2006 called University Futures and shifted it over to Google+ in the last couple of years. I also have a Facebook page for University Futures. It’s a topic that obviously means something to me. I spent 28 years of my working life in universities and I liked working in them. And now it’s the topic of my PhD. I obviously can’t let it go!

I have rewritten my PhD proposal to focus on multiple possible futures for the university as an organisation, as a social entity. Most of the future focused work I’ve looked at so far has the words “future of the university” in the title, but what they were really talking about was the future of learning, or the future of research, or the future of quality, or the future of a country’s higher education sector.

There’s not much that I can find so far that really looks at why we have such faith in the university as the most appropriate organisation to create, maintain and disseminate knowledge into the future, no matter what’s going on in the external environment. And why when the title says ‘future of the university’ do we end up talking about what the university does and how it does it?

That thought took me to the idea of the university, that tacit, taken for granted narrative about what a university is and what it should be. It manifests itself in statements like this:

A modern society is unthinkable without a university (Pelikan, 1992, p. 13)

This does not mean that universities will become obsolete, after all they have shown considerable adaptability before (Coaldrake & Stedman, 2013, p. 13).

These statements remind me of the quotes I sometimes use in presentations which I call ‘smart people saying really silly things because they didn’t question their underpinning assumptions”:

  • Lord Kelvin, President, Royal Society (1895): heavier than air flying machines are impossible,
  • Thomas Watson, Chairman, IBM (1943): I think there is a world market for maybe 5 computers,
  • Decca Records Executive (1962): We don’t like your boys’ sound. Groups are out. Four-piece groups with guitars, particularly, are finished,
  • Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO (2007): There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.

obsolenceAny organisation can become obsolete if it does not maintain societal relevance. It can disappear. It happens all the time. So how is it that we seem to think that the university is somehow immune from this possible outcome?

People trained in using foresight always look for the assumptions underpinning statements like this, and that’s where I went. What, I thought, was the unsurfaced assumption here? It’s that we think there will always be university in the future, irrespective of any disconnect between the university and its environment. That is what seems to be at the core of the idea of the university, and can explain why some writers get quite vitriolic in their defence of the university as social entity.

What’s more interesting is that we think the university will always exist in more or less the same form as it exists today. Even the scenarios for the future of the university and higher education that have been developed today see how the university does what it does as changing but what it does – teaching and research –  will remain largely unchanged. Weber (1999, p. 152) captures this well:

To assume that the university has a future is not simply to assert that it will continue in some form in the years to come: it implies that the university, as we know it, will remain essentially unchanged in the future.

Why do we think this? That led me back to the idea of the university. That idea hasn’t been stable during its existence – it has been challenged and reframed and we are reminded that there is probably more than one idea anyway. But … this core belief about what the university is and should be has remained powerful in its longevity.

The unchallenged assumption that there will always be a university like today not only generates resistance to change and to adapting the fundamental nature of a university to ensure its continuing relevance to its societies. It also generates an image of the future university that is a linear extrapolation of today, albeit possibly doing what it does in different ways, but with the same fundamental idea underpinning what the university is understood to be.

The probability of today’s university remaining unchanged into the future is low. The university’s past resilience isn’t likely to be enough to assure its future in an increasingly global and connected world where the internet has democratised and opened knowledge creation, maintenance and transmission to the masses (Price & Kennie, 2012), where alternative educational organisational forms are emerging and gaining societal acceptance (Kamenetz, 2010; Swanson, 2015; Walker, 2014), where public funding is declining (Kelo, 2006) and where technology is changing in fundamental ways how work is undertaken and how we connect with each other in our work and lives. The university’s ability to keep up with societal change, to maintain societal relevance, to be unassailable, is under challenge from outside its boundaries.

The reality now is that the university as an organisation has multiple possible futures, including one where it no longer exists. So I’m problematising the idea of the university in my research – the idea that allows us to think there will always be a university, no matter what happens. I’m aiming to explore possible university futures through to 2035 and challenge that seemingly unchallengeable assumption that there will always be a university.

I go into the research with my own hopes and assumptions about possible university futures. I want there to be a university in 2035. I want it to be a place where those wonderful, uplifting, brain-hurting conversations occur. Where lightbulbs go on in people’s minds, where people change how they see the world, expanding their thinking beyond the conventional. And where they learn what they need to learn to contribute in meaningful ways to the society in which they will live and work. We need these places in the world.

Will the university give us that type of place in 2035? I don’t know yet.

PS: let me know if you want any of the references and I can share them with you on Mendeley.

2 thoughts on “University Futures

Add yours

  1. What an interesting piece, Maree. I just have never thought about the future existence of the university as I have just thought of them as a given… So thought-provoking and on a subject I have not thought about – the “taken for granted narrative.” Clearly I need to sharpen my thinking! Thanks for the prompt.

    1. Thanks Sharon – it’s only taken me four years to get here! It feels right though, and believe me, you aren’t the only one who thinks in the same way about the future university :) Now to do the hard work of actually writing the thesis!

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