The Sharply Stratified Academic World in 2040 – and Why It Is Unavoidable

The Sharply Stratified Academic World in 2040 – and Why It Is Unavoidable

The focus on elite universities

The university sector in 2040 will be sharply stratified: globally and intra-nationally. There will be a small ultra-elite league of well-funded research-focused universities, globally and in each country, and the rest of universities. Importantly, this sharp vertical differentiation of institutions will be accompanied by equally sharp vertical differentiation of the academic profession.

There will be a long continuum between the haves and the have-nots in terms of opportunities at the disposal of institutions and individual academics (or their teams)1 . But, the important distinction will be between the top and the rest. Research will be funded almost exclusively in this small super-league of institutions. How the global university system and the national university systems will look like? Powerful vertical stratification will be the rule. There will be no similarity between the super-league of institutions, comprising in most countries a maximum of 1-2 universities, and the rest. Only in highly developed OECD nations there will be a larger number of globally visible universities, with countries such as the USA, the United Kingdom, China, Japan, and regional academic superpowers such as the European Union comprising the bulk of the global Top 500-1,000 universities. The European Union by 2040 will be smaller, richer and perfectly integrated politically, economically, socially, and academically. The 500-1,000 out of about 20,000 universities in 2040 will be the global leaders, with drastically different institutional features, total funding, research funding, and academics. The vertical stratification will be based purely on academic research capacities and academic research production – with the levels achieved by the Top 500- 1,000 beyond the reach of the remaining thousands of universities.

The ‘rest’ will focus on teaching

National research funding will be concentrated in the small minority of institutions, with huge intra-national and cross-national mobility of top academic minds. The mobility will be driven by the scarcity of opportunities available and the sharp contrast between top institutions and the rest of them, nationally and internationally, in terms of the type of academic work, academic remuneration, and teaching/research orientation2 . Top institutions will be focused almost entirely on socially- and economically-relevant research and they will be preparing national and global elites. The Anglo-Saxon countries, with high fees and declining public financial support, will additionally be garnering huge private funds from teaching the elites. The rest of universities – some 95 percent of them globally – will be teaching-only institutions. Not much different from current secondary schools, with no research involvement, small remuneration and most often part-time and/or contracted staff. Working conditions will be hard and chances of the upper mobility in national higher education systems will be limited. When we look at the current private higher education in all countries except for the USA and Japan – all universities except top ones in 2040 will be similar to private sector institutions as they operate today. Also, in almost all countries (perhaps except for the European Union countries), higher education will be fee-based rather than tax-based. The increasing role of fees will transform higher education beyond recognition and will make it similar to currently existing private higher education.

The concentration of research activity

By 2040, academic research will be confined to elite national and global universities. Its increasing institutional concentration intra-nationally will be driven by the growing costs and complexity of academic research: concentration accompanied by academic mobility to top institutions will be viewed more favorable than dispersion and academic immobility by both policymakers, academics and the general public. The social stratification and the upper social mobility through higher education will be limited to some places in national systems only: the number of elite-producing universities will be much lower than today, and the role of higher education credentials in general, except for credentials from top universities, will be diminished3 . We will all be Simon Marginson’s “high participation systems” in which 80-90 percent of the age cohort will be trained in the higher education sector4 .

For national higher education systems, to remain relevant and to remain publicly fundable, the need to be vertically stratified will be as high as never before. The role of the general public in the strategic distribution of tax-based public resources will be growing, with an increasing competition between the healthcare sector, the pensions sector, and higher education. In addition, publicly funded infrastructural needs will be much higher than today – resulting in sharp competition for public dollars. Universities will be using huge public funds for research and innovation – but only in top places. The vast majority of universities will be severely underfunded, with students increasingly paying tuition and requiring strong links between teaching and labor market needs.

The massification of higher education

By 2040, there will be a tiny minority of academics full-time employed in elite universities – and a vast majority of academics employed part-time or on an hourly basis in the rest of universities. Again, the academic profile and employment relations of the current private sector in higher education globally will be prevalent in the future in the rest of universities. The public-private distinction in the case of the majority of institutions will not make much sense as almost most of them will be fee-driven. The middle-class lifestyle of the majority of university professors today will be not available outside of elite national universities. The massification of higher education means also the massification of the academic profession; and good university jobs will be highly concentrated in selected places only.

The vertical stratification of national higher education systems has already been occurring in most countries. The gap between top universities and the rest has been growing. My assumption is that the gap will be widening and will be based on research as research is what really costs and what cannot be paid for by the third parties, be it students through fees or the business sector through university-business contracts. What truly differentiates the academic sector is research – and it will be used as a criterion for further concentration of talents and public resources. To sum up, the university world in 2040 will be sharply divided, globally and intra-nationally, with only a few truly teaching – and research-focused institutions, and the academic work will remain current academic work only in its top echelons. Globally, in the vast majority of institutions, academic work will mean relatively unexciting and underpaid teaching to masses of non-traditional students as close to the labor market needs as possible. That will be the end of the academic world as we know it.

1Kwiek, M. (2016). The European research elite: A cross-national study of highly productive academics across 11 European systems. Higher Education, 71(3), 379-397.

2Kwiek, M. (2018). Academic top earners. Research productivity, prestige generation, and salary patterns in European universities. Science and Public Policy. 45(1): 1-13. 2018

3Kwiek, M. (2018). International research collaboration and international research orientation: Comparative findings about European academics. Journal of Studies in International Education. 22(2): 136-160.

4Marginson, S. (2016). High Participation Systems of Higher Education. The Journal of Higher Education. 87(2): 243-271.

5Marginson, S. (2017). Global Stratification in Higher Education. In S. Slaughter, B.J. Taylor eds., Higher Education, Stratification, and Workforce Development, Dordrecht: Springer. 13-34


Professor Marek Kwiek holds a UNESCO Chair in Institutional Research and Higher Education Policy and is a director of the Center for Public Policy Studies at the University of Poznan, Poland. His research interests include university governance, academic entrepreneurialism, public sector reforms and the academic profession. His recent monograph is ‘Knowledge Production in European Universities: States, Markets, and Academic Entrepreneurialism’ (2013). His monograph ‘Changing European Academics: A Comparative Study of Social Stratification, Work Patterns and Research Productivity’ is forthcoming from Routledge (2018). His primary research interests. He is also a principal investigator and country team leader in about 50 international higher education research and policy projects funded by the European Commission, European Science Foundation, World Bank, Council of Europe etc. He has also been a Fulbrighter, a Fulbright New Century Scholar, and an editorial board member of Higher Education Quarterly, European Educational Research Journal, British Educational Research Journal and European Journal of Higher Education.

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