It’s traditional, when predicting the future, to take one of two paths: to forecast a neon world of flying cars, jetpacks and robots, or to plump for a tomorrow that’s much the same as today.
But how do these rules of crystal ball gazing translate into predictions about the future of higher education? To find out, we asked scholars and university leaders from across the world and a range of academic disciplines to give us their vision for the university of 2030.
The results, in our cover story, do reference the classic templates – from the computer scientist who predicts a future ruled by artificial intelligence, in which both the university and the graduate job market are destroyed, to the former vice-chancellor who concludes: “I am willing to stick my neck out and make a prediction. Universities of the future will be much like those of today.”
But within this spectrum, our sages explore a host of potential developments.
Dan Schwartz and Candace Thille of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education predict step changes in our understanding of how the brain learns, in data-supported teaching choices, how exams should work and how universities’ departmental boundaries are set up (or knocked down).
Warren Bebbington, vice-chancellor of the University of Adelaide, foretells a return to long-held academic values, an unmasking of flaky pedagogic fads that leads to a “re‑energised” lecture and a decluttering of teaching and learning, in which technology plays second fiddle to focused study.
By contrast, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus of George Washington University, envisages 2030 as an age of fierce competition fuelled by further technological innovation, which he thinks will drive down both tuition fees and academic salary bills.
One of the benefits of predicting a future 15 years hence, of course, is that predictions are likely to be long forgotten by the time their due date arrives.
So a question of more immediate consequence, as we reach the end of the year, might be: what will the university of 2016, or at least the higher education environment, look like?
Taking the approach that it will build on key trends from 2015, topics worth watching include the drive to measure teaching quality and graduate outcomes, continued tension over freedom of speech on campus, the trade-off between international student recruitment and restrictive visa regimes, and further agonising over the future of research assessment.
Before we get to the new year, however, there’s Christmas, which we’re marking in this week’s Times Higher Education with two different takes on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
For the first, in our features pages, Nicholas Rowe, who is studying for a PhD at the University of Lapland (yes, really), sets the tale in a modern university, with Bob Cratchit an overworked academic working on a digital publishing strategy to end all publishing strategies.
In the second, A Christmas Carol comes to the University of Poppleton.
All that remains is to wish our readers a very happy Christmas and a prosperous new year – whether it brings rule by robot, the Office for Students, or something none of us has foreseen.