Futurology is a notoriously unreliable art. Just five years ago, many commentators were asking if the Mooc – the massive open online course – could spell the end of the physical university. Campuses are still standing today, however, so we should perhaps be cautious about trying to peer a decade into the future.
But while it is impossible to predict what ministers and vice-chancellors will do over the next 10 years, there are a handful of wider technological, demographic and social shifts that seem set to march on regardless, and that may offer a sense of the landscape that UK universities and students will face in 2027.
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One such trend is the rise of artificial intelligence. “What is clear is that there’s going to be increasing automation and a blend of human and AI working together,” says Rose Luckin, chair of learning with digital technologies at University College London. “That involves knowing what AI can and cannot do,” she argues.
In other words, knowing at least something about how AI works (so we know when to challenge the suggestions of self-driving cars, for example) will become as important for students as knowing how to word-process, she believes.
Machines could also replace some of the more routine aspects of being a lecturer, Luckin says. Last year, a computing professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology created an AI teaching assistant to help answer students’ common queries, such as where to find certain readings and assignments. After some tinkering, “Jill Watson” was answering students’ questions with 97 per cent certainty, and many students had no suspicions she was a robot.
On the other hand, the threat of AI is that it automates so many jobs that the financial point of going to university for many students – lawyers or accountants, for example – will evaporate.
Luckin stresses that there is “little consensus” on what jobs robots will actually replace, but other commentators have suggested that universities will increasingly need to teach creativity and empathy to keep their graduates one step ahead of machines.
With the labour market going through such rapid change, how many students will actually want to go to university in 2027?
The demographic trends are positive, explains Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of Ucas, the universities and colleges admissions service.
Although the number of 18-year-olds in the UK is currently falling, this trend will bottom out in the early 2020s, she explains.
From the mid-2020s, Ucas expects a surge in the proportion of 18-year-olds who have graduate mothers, something that has been a good predictor of demand for university places.
“Coupled with the rising tide of 18-year-old populations by then, aggregate demand prospects look very healthy in 10 to 15 years’ time, although affordability and the attractiveness of other options are less easy to predict,” she says.
So in a decade, there will be plenty of potential students, at least from the UK.
But according to David Palfreyman, director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, there are two types of youngster who could start to turn their backs on university.
The first is the “middle-class kids who, dare we say it, don’t have the grades to get into a Russler [Russell Group university],” he predicts.
This type of student might use their “social capital” and the employability that comes with it to become an apprentice at, say, Legal & General, rather than going to university, he says.
Some working-class youngsters, on the other hand, might come to the conclusion that doing a degree “doesn’t appear to pay off” and also steer clear of university, he believes.
But there is a deeper question here. What are youngsters actually getting into debt for? Is university about receiving an accredited education that leads to a better career, as politicians and parents tend to see it? Or is it a kind of consumption good – “three years of getting drunk”, as Palfreyman puts it – not too dissimilar to a lengthy holiday with a bit of reading thrown in?
If the real draw of university is three years of fun, then some institutions could fall victim to the more puritanical lifestyle preferences of today’s young people. It does seem that students are becoming less interested in three years of drunken hedonism, says Palfreyman. Last year’s Sodexo University Lifestyle Survey found that 28 per cent said they spent nothing on socialising in a typical week, double the proportion in 2012. More than a third (36 per cent) said they didn’t drink alcohol, up from 26 per cent in 2012.
There are also several reasons to believe that UK campuses may have fewer overseas students in 10 years’ time (they currently represent about one in five students, according to the latest Higher Education Statistics Agency data).
European Union students may be put off as Brexit means they will end up being charged the same as other international students. There has already been a drop of 7 per cent in EU applications for 2017, even though the government has guaranteed that these students will still have access to the UK’s public loan system and home student fees.
And with Donald Trump taking a more belligerent line towards China, there is also a geopolitical risk that a major falling out with the country removes Chinese students from UK campuses “overnight”, points out Palfreyman.
More juice bars, sensors and AI teaching assistants, but fewer pub crawls, international students and undergraduates going to university for lack of better options? Welcome, perhaps, to the UK university of 2027.
What might the campus of 2027 look like?
What will university campuses physically look like in 10 years’ time? We shouldn’t expect a “flashy future,” where campuses are festooned with LED lights, says Gemma Ginty, head of urban futures at the Future Cities Catapult Centre, which is working with the University of Glasgow to develop the “smart campus” of the future.
Science fiction has fed us a particular vision of the future, “but people don’t want to live there. It feels quite soulless”, Ginty argues. Instead, the real changes will be around how campuses use sensors and data to make university life more efficient for students and academics, she argues. For example, sensors can track when rooms are being used and how many people are attending lectures. “This is already happening in some universities,” says Ginty.
This opens up the prospect of “just in time” room scheduling, where, in the name of maximising room utilisation efficiency, students and academics are alerted by smartphone where they need to go for a lecture, rather than attending the same room each week. Being buzzed an hour beforehand to tell you where to go could be “annoying”, acknowledges Ginty.
But she points out that “the utilisation of university spaces is really low. It averages around 25-28 per cent, and if you compare that to any commercial or office assets, you would never accept this as a property owner.”
One idea the Catapult Centre has come up with is an app where students can view campus buildings through their smartphone and see which rooms are currently available inside.
Items such as library cards and smartphone apps can also be used to keep track of students’ lives to help those who are struggling, Ginty explains. In 2015, researchers in the US found that they could predict students’ grade point average scores with reasonable accuracy just from smartphone data that showed whether they were partying, studying in the library or attending classes, although the privacy concerns are obvious.
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