It can feel like a fool’s errand predicting what will happen six months from now, let alone in a decade’s time.
Across the world, a high level of turbulence is disrupting politics, economies and society – much of it underpinned by financial and technological pressures.
Universities are long-term institutions, built up individually and collectively by layer upon layer of academic endeavour stretching back centuries.
That does not give them immunity from the present day, however – and the pressure has been intense over the past decade or so, calling into question universities’ role, efficacy, business models and, in some cases, their right to survival.
What, then, might the next decade bring for higher education around the world?
This week, in a unique survey, Times Higher Education reveals what the leaders of 200 world-ranked universities think the future will hold.
Specifically, we asked participants in the THE University Leaders Survey (the vast majority of them university presidents or vice-chancellors) where higher education will be in 2030, covering major issues in teaching, research, funding, and institutional structure and strategy.
We also asked survey respondents about the likely impact of technology on universities over the next decade, and will detail the findings in THE next week.
The survey pools insights from 45 countries in six continents: 88 universities in Europe; 44 in Asia; 30 in North America; and the remaining 30 or so from Australasia, Africa and Latin America.
Given the global span, responses on specific policy issues inevitably vary. But there are also many unifying themes, and taken together these strands give a unique overview of where university leaders think the pressure points and potential opportunities lie.
In terms of teaching and student life, for example, a high proportion of respondents expect public funding to continue to decline, accounting for a smaller share of overall state spending by 2030.
Indeed, teaching grants are considered the most threatened income stream in large swathes of the world – something that Brian Schmidt, the Nobel prizewinning vice-chancellor of Australian National University, links firmly to the fact that “the politics of the day trumps long-term policy”.
This view is echoed in many of the other developed systems, including the UK and among the public universities in the US. However, it is striking that in China, all of the university leaders we surveyed expect an increased share of state spending for higher education teaching.
This sets a pattern for other areas too, with Chinese presidents forecasting strong increases in research funding (though this is more in line with elsewhere – around half of respondents globally expect more money for research, while only a quarter predict less will be available).
On what is this confidence based? “Technological change and societal problems demand it,” one UK vice-chancellor says.
Among the other topics covered in our University Leaders Survey are academic careers (much of the world expects further casualisation of academic contracts, although UK respondents are notable in their opposition), and the structure of degrees (many expect shorter courses to come to the fore, as well as students at different stages of their lives and careers).
We also look at the future disciplinary mix – the tension that exists between demand for more study and research in science, technology, engineering and maths versus arts, humanities and social sciences; the role of industry; the balance between applied and blue-sky research; and the issue of public trust.
As for the question of survival, while it may be foolish to try to predict the future, you might think it would be downright crazy for a university president to forecast their own institution’s demise. Only one does so.
But as the president of Virginia Tech observes, the answers might have been different had we asked about others’ chances of making it.