Fostered by Crisis, How to Imagine the Future of the Universities within Societies and What Should it Be?

Fostered by Crisis, How to Imagine the Future of the Universities within Societies and What Should it Be?

Before the COVID-19 crisis, world universities were seriously impacted by several global trends:

  1. Digitalization and its consequences – as knowledge is more available everywhere for free, legitimacy to demand high tuition fees is increasingly challenged. New entrants (GAFAs, MOOCs, EdTech…) are pressuring universities to become more unique and relevant, as places for socialization and competence integration.
  2. Vast demographic shifts – up to 2035, local populations of young students will decrease in Europe and the Americas, while increasing in the Middle East and Asia, and dramatically in Africa. New students to educate will NOT be in traditional academic countries, they will locally vanish in the best equipped academic locations.
  3. Education is increasingly lifelong, whatever the country – the balance of academic efforts between initial education and adult education will evolve to be different from today.
  4. Investments in science and research present a major geopolitical shift – Depending on the ability of governments to think long term and decide accordingly, some nations are becoming key scientific actors; others historically advanced are lagging behind. The EU decisions last week to cut 15% of the future Research EU policy to ease the collective investment to relaunch economy was a spectacularly negative gesture.

Paradoxically speaking, the COVID-19 crisis’ main impact will just be to accelerate these four megatrends, requiring better answers from academic actors, but not changing them. The primary change will most likely be restrictions on students’ physical mobility, which will impact severely some academic models largely based on international students.

A key uncertainty between scenarios will revolve around international openness versus international closure. Depending on the scenario, these trends will affect universities in the world with opposite effects, depending what the universities are already.

  • The so-called “global universities” sitting in the top 50 in global rankings, will have to transform their models by learning how to operate more frugally, as the best students will increasingly originate from financially-challenged countries. They will face the choice of recruiting elite students from these regions, or recruiting average students from rich countries. Further lockdowns will force them to recruit locally or dare to invest massively in developing a presence in growth countries
  • Depending on their capabilities and willingness to invest in knowledge, emerging countries, will be the hottest places for higher education.
    • The less advanced ones will face demographic tsunamis of potential numbers of new students of + 200, up to + 700%, but capabilities will be insufficient. There, only digitalization will enable to cope with massive numbers.
    • New intellectual giants, as China, will appear among the middle-income countries.
  • Between these actors, many universities, especially in Europe, will have huge opportunities to reinvent how to implement their competences. They are not too rich and their value for money is much better than more prestigious universities. These ones can grasp the demographic, digital, and life-long education shifts as opportunities to reinvent themselves. Neither INSEAD in France, nor many universities now increasingly prestigious, existed 60 years ago.


“In every time of history, universities have been spaces active in inventing the best future for society. They can be vivid actors to pressure politicians, governments and lobbies acting for an open world.” 


Their ability to do so will depend on the public perception of their willingness to serve society at large, not to work for their own benefit. Academics must find the narrow path where battling for additional credits does not jeopardize their legitimacy to speak with a loud voice, with independence and judgment, fostering collective wisdom.

Some will, some won’t. Scenarios are pretty open, for better or worse.



Pierre Tapie built his career holding together academic and economic universes, graduated as an Engineer from Ecole Polytechnique (Paris), with a PhD in Biophysics (University Paris-Saclay) and an MBA (INSEAD). After 10 years as a scientist at SANOFI, he was Dean of Purpan Graduate School of Engineering for 11 years, then Dean and President of ESSEC Business school, leading its global outreach. In 2013, he created Paxter, a consulting firm focused on academic institutional strategy, serving universities, governments and companies worldwide.

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