"There can be no grand vision of tomorrow's university" at present, according to a report by the Royal Institute of British Architects, because fundamental questions remain over the future of higher education.
A report by RIBA's Building Futures group, Growing by Degrees: Universities in the Future of Urban Development, says that the space needs of universities have grown more than the retail or residential accommodation sectors in recent years. However, architects and planners face an uncertain task when designing university campuses for the future.
The report says that little is currently known about the size and composition of the future student population, and it is not clear where students will live. It warns that campuses may be increasingly dispersed and spread across the globe.
The report, written by academics and architects, also claims that the growing trends for lifelong learning and adoption of new technologies will mean that who learns and how they learn may change.
"Although there is much planning and even more talk, at this time there can be no grand vision of tomorrow's university," the report says. "In spring 2009, the future looks even more unfathomable than it did a few years ago.
"Current trends suggest a need for novel forms and new norms for architectural production and urban planning. Expansion will not necessarily benefit towns and cities nor automatically boost regional economies," the report says.
As higher education is still a priority among government policymakers, universities will still be significant players when it comes to public funding, the report states. "Many universities - although perhaps not those at the very top - will try to bolster their position through significant building projects," it says.
But the RIBA report also contains a warning about future funding for new and innovative development. "Despite the seductive impulse to seek comfortable consensus, decision-makers at universities also face difficult choices as growth pits preferences and interest groups against each other. Money will be spent 'here' rather than 'there'. This will have to be justified."
Dickon Robinson, chair of the Building Futures group, said the scenarios explored in the publication were intended as informed provocations to stimulate debate within universities and local authorities but also discussions between the two.