Is This the End of Universities as We Know Them?

It is evident that across the globe, higher education institutions are under pressure from many directions – the economy and lack of government funding, growth in demand, growth in competition, and of course advances in technology – perhaps even becoming unviable1.

Whilst until now, the education industry has been quite immune to the huge disruptive factors that have redesigned and restructured many other global industries such as print, media, music, communications, manufacturing etc., are we on the verge of a disruptive shift that will change our sector forever?

The current ‘hot’ discourse in 2017 focuses on Schwab’s notion of the fourth industrial revolution2, or Industry 4.0. This has the potential for huge disruptive change as we continually develop and build platforms better able to understand human learning, cognitive development and emotions. The growth in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Virtual Reality (VR) could revolutionise learning design, delivery and assessment.

So what are the key questions to ponder as we move toward this new era? Certainly universities will remain pillars of higher education across the globe but will they continue to be leaders in the delivery of higher education (rather than research)? Who will be our future consumers and customers? Who will be our learners in 2040 and how will they want to learn and why?

We often ask ourselves what should we teach, to whom, when, how and why. These are now critical questions as the available options outside of the university continue to grow, as the nature and needs of new learners change, and as demands for new types of graduates increase. Should students drive what they learn, when, how and who with, particularly when they are paying more for their education? Will we no longer have traditional lecturers but engage educators whose role it is to co-ordinate and engage with students on a co-learning basis? Does this mean we will need different types of educators across our institutions and the sector? We will need educators as coaches, mentors and learning facilitators rather than knowledge deliverers. As such these educators do not need to be university staff, or even based on a campus.

Who will drive pedagogic innovations and programme design parameters? Will other external stakeholders more deeply engage in curricula design as they seek to ensure that graduates are fit for their purpose and institutions keep pace with technological advancements in delivery?

What does all this mean for the future of universities in 20403?

Institutional structures will need to become less siloed and far more inter-/trans-disciplinary based on delivering solutions to major challenges, i.e. ensuring high relevance, meaning and purpose. This requires creating the organisational environments and mindsets that enable this to work, leading to the repurposing of buildings as social, interactive and creative spaces that stimulate new ideas, critical thinking and stakeholder engagement. This will also impact on the design of degrees that can enable higher levels of understanding across broader disciplinary fields. This is crucial for generating opportunities for improving problem solving for complex and ‘wicked’ challenges.

How bold can institutions become in their flexibility to the design and delivery of learning platforms? How can more students learn where and when they wish with the institutional support shifting more to mentoring and coaching? How can professors and teaching staff become the ‘guides on the side’ rather than the ‘sages on the stage’4? How will this affect our credit systems and how credits are earned and assessed?

Learning will be driven far more by experiential learning approaches as students require greater context to understand relevance and become better able to apply their learning. We will see a stronger sense of peer-to-peer learning provision through the wider use of social media networks that can offer a ‘learn when you want and how you want’ model – a highly personalised approach. This would certainly enable a more cost-efficient learning opportunity as institutions cope with growing registrations.

We have already begun the process of moving away from a model of the university toward embracing a pluralistic notion of universities having different purposes and identities – entrepreneurial, innovative, engaged, civic and so forth. Institutions are recognising the need for a more sophisticated segmentation of the education marketplace. This is leading to a ‘stratification’ of provision, a greater differentiation in types of institution and more diversity.

Will all universities need to be campus-based? Staley5 suggests some will be nomadic (or ‘knowmadic’), moving around the globe to address key problems. Universities have the opportunity for re-creating their estates as new educational incubators; for creative approaches to locating spaces for engagement, creative interaction and provision; for personalising learning through re-packaging learning opportunities into bundles; for offering flexible life-long learning relationships.

So where are the entrepreneurial leaders, the innovators, the disruptors that will ensure we are well prepared for 2040?

To achieve any transformation we will need strong entrepreneurial leadership at all levels in our institutions and across the wider eco- system to build a culture, capacity and capability that can thrive in highly diverse, uncertain and unpredictable learning environments where boundaries are ambiguous and amorphous.

As we have in the past6, we should always challenge ourselves to think about how to engage with possible future worlds of education.


A recent prediction from Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School proposed that in fifteen years 50% of all American universities would be bankrupt. Ernst and Young suggested that the public university model in Australia will become ‘unviable’.

Klaus Schwab is founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum. His book ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’ was published in January 2017.

For a very recent and comprehensive exploration of the global historical and cultural context, current challenges and future possibilities see Zwaan, Bert van der (2017) ‘Higher Education in 2040: a global approach’ published by Amsterdam University Press. Retrieved from http://oapen. org/search?identifier=620650; and for shorter discussions about Denmark see Dyball, R., Davila, F. and König, A. (2016) ‘Transforming the World by Transforming the University: Envisioning the University of 2040’, the Solutions Journal, 7:3, p12- 16; and for the USA, see Morson, G. S. and Schapiro, M. (2015) ‘2040 Prognosis for Higher Education: What will the future really look like?’, The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Often credited to Alison King in 1993 when she was an associate professor of education at the California State University.

Staley, D. (2015) ‘The Future of the University: Speculative Design for Innovation in Higher Education’ Educause Review. Retrieved from

In 2012 The Guardian asked about the university of 2020 and in 2015 the Times Higher Education asked how universities will look in 2030.


Paul is a graduate entrepreneur who has shaped entrepreneurship education and small business development in the UK and overseas during the past 40 years as a CEO, Director, Academic Leader, Professor and Company co-founder/owner. Paul is the 2016 European Entrepreneurship Education Laureate, from the Sten K. Johnson Centre for Entrepreneurship in Sweden. Paul is driven to enhancing the opportunities for enterprise and entrepreneurship within the context of education and has consistently demonstrated his capacity to tackle challenges; shape ways of thinking; and deliver effective solutions. Paul has worked with governments, global and national agencies, universities and colleges, business and industry partners and professional bodies in the UK, across Europe, in China, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Australia and America. He is currently advising the Welsh and Malaysian Governments.

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