What will universities be like in the future?

How will higher ed adapt to the rise of artificial intelligence, online learning, and other factors?

[Editor’s note: This article is excerpted from The Fourth Education Revolution, Sir Anthony Seldon’s latest book, which takes a tantalizing look into the school of the future, what artificial intelligence (AI) will mean for higher ed, and how it will impact our lives in general.]

Universities, for all their diversity across the world, will become still more so over the next 25 years, under the pressures of financial, social, and above all technological change. The ‘Carnegie Classification’ of institutions of higher education, created in 1973, attempts to categorize the different types of universities and colleges in the U.S. All accredited-degree granting universities and colleges across the U.S. are described as follows:

  • Doctorate-granting universities, with a high research focus
  • Masters’ colleges, which focus on Masters’ degrees while still undertaking research
  • Baccalaureate colleges, which see the focus on bachelors’ degrees
  • Associate colleges, whose highest award is the associate degree
  • Special focus institutions, defined as offering degrees in a single field or set of related fields
  • “Tribal colleges,” belonging to the American Indian HE consortium

A more international and forward-looking model of university archetypes have been outlined by Glyn Davis, formerly vice chancellor of the University of Melbourne. The “influencer” university is international in perspective, strongly driven by research and tackling the major issues facing each individual country and the world. The “agile” university is rich in AI and digital technology, and dedicated to applied research as well as giving students a competitive advantage. The “consultant” university is focused on the job market and its purpose is to serve organizational clients who buy expert advice, education, and research/innovation to boost their own performance. Finally, the “community” university is less interested in national and international league tables and has its raison d’etre principally in serving local students and business, and in championing them on national stages.

The Carnegie and Glyn Davis models are useful, especially the latter, but we need to go further to visualize how universities will adapt to the rise of AI and online learning, the fall in residential full-time students living away from home, a rise in part-time and all-age students, and an increase in the number of accelerated degrees and those taking specific modules at university rather than completing a full degree at one university.

We see the market segmenting into six different kinds of institution.

1. Global
This will constitute a league of the top universities across the world, some 100 in number, that compete internationally to attract world class academics and the very ablest researchers. They are heavily interlinked and research-focused, addressing similar global problems. They will appeal to highly able undergraduate and postgraduates who relish independent study and being taught by cutting-edge academics. These will be truly the elite institutions, attracting a disproportionate amount of global research funding and exerting considerable influence in their own countries and internationally. Their graduates will be employed internationally and paid commensurate high salaries. They will have little contact with their local or regional communities.

2. National universities
These will attract primarily national and regional students and staff, and will be engaged heavily in research, though the focus will be more upon undergraduate and postgraduate teaching than in the global institutions. They will nevertheless have significant numbers of doctoral students. National universities will scoop up the bulk of the research funding within each country and work closely with their governments in solving problems of mutual interest. They will be predominantly residential.

3. Regional universities
These universities will play very significant roles in the economic, cultural, and social life of their respective counties, states, and regions, working closely with those tiers of government and with businesses and other organizations of influence in the area. They will conduct research, to a more limited scale than for global and national universities, and the focus will be more heavily on teaching and learning. Many students will live at home.

4. Professional universities
These will make no attempt to offer anything other than training to achieve the qualifications required by the professions and services, among them law, finance, accounting, medicine, and architecture, the military and police. Many of them will be single-subject institutions. They will offer programs at undergraduate and post-graduate level but will not undertake research unless paid for by clients. Large companies will also increasingly set up their own “universities” within their own organizations to give bespoke professional training and qualifications to their staff. Corporate certifications are on the rise, such as Cisco Certified Network Associate and Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert.

British engineer and inventor James Dyson announced in 2016 he was setting up his own university to train engineers, because of their dearth. Apple was said to be thinking of starting a university. KPMG is working with Birmingham, Exeter, and Durham Universities in the U.K. Concerns have been raised whether quality might suffer if content and quality are decided by employers and not by universities. In a Times Higher Education article, Arun Sharma, deputy vice chancellor of Queensland University of Technology, says he is vexed that India in particular is seeing an explosion of this form of higher education with employers “in effect replacing universities as the trusted guarantors of quality and credit.”

5. Digital
All six university types will invest heavily in digital and AI teaching, but specifically “digital universities” will have no physical presence for students, and have headquarters purely or mostly for administrative purposes, much like The Open University in the U.K. The number of digital universities will expand, though their growth will be contained by the conventional physical universities moving further online in a search for students.

6. Local universities
These universities will blend with further education colleges. They will not undertake research, and will offer only limited post-graduate activity. The focus will be on technical, vocational, and applied undergraduate degrees, foundation programs, apprenticeships, short courses, and qualifications for those who require particular modules for their career progression, or for general interest and lifelong learning. Every town of a size above 50-100,000 inhabitants, and many smaller, will have their own local university, which will work closely with schools, colleges, employers, social services, and the third sector in the local area and will be heavily involved in teacher training, skills development, and adult education. Almost all students will live at home.

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