Universities – Engagement or Irrelevance – in 2040

Universities – Engagement or Irrelevance – in 2040

Changes in technology are currently forcing, and will continue to force, universities to re-as­sess their purpose of being. This together with a shift in societies’ expectation of what universities should be providing as a “return on investment” from high student fees and large investment of pub­lic funds, will mean that university operational models will undergo dramatic transformation. This change will be further driven by the demand for greater transpar­ency around the nature and quali­ty of teaching and research activity being conducted by universities.

These shifts are already seen in education, for example, by the increasing number of universities providing a mixture of on-line and blended learning, “flipped class­rooms”, and an improving digital experience. They are even grap­pling with the notion that students are their “customers” and that there are many types of potential ‘students’. Universities will no doubt adapt to the emergence of life-long learning – people seeking to either re-enter the workforce or enhance their existing techni­cal skills and career paths, with contemporary qualifications, or simply seeking an enriching learn­ing experience – and see it as an additional business opportunity.

Further, most students now attend universities for essentially vocational reasons – to build a career, to get a job. Universities are being selected based on their “brand value“, or perceived quality of the university from an potential employers perspective, on the relevance of the course to the stu­dents’ preferences, as well as on the capacity to fit the education product into busy student lives.

Projecting into the future of 2040, how far can these trends go?

As more and more courses go on-line or are provided outside traditional 9-5 working hours, uni­versities should be expanding the common view of a “student” and seek new customers of universi­ties such as:


  • Multi-national companies – seeking standardised, leading edge training across their global workforces
  • Industry professional asso­ciations – seeing access to specially tailored professional training updates for their mem­bers
  • Other “on-line” content providers – seeking to comple­ment their own offerings – of films, news updates, etc. – with education packages suitable for their target market


These new breeds of custom­ers will seek education products from providers that are credible and know how to curate diverse sources of knowledge into a contemporary, structured educa­tion and learning package. These customers will also expect to have input to the focus and content of these courses. This may indeed be the key competitive edge of universities into 2040 – leverag­ing their status as a university to provide products to others.

Well before 2040, customers will be also expecting courses – in whatever format – to be delivered by a professionally trained teach­ing workforce, not just a large pool of casual workers. In Australia, approximately 60% of under­graduate teaching is provided by university-qualified casual staff, often doing PhDs1 .

Universities themselves may choose – or be forced to choose – to specialise in product develop­ment only (including curation, as­sessment, certification and quality control over services provided by others – teaching, student sup­port). Such models are already emerging in the Australian univer­sity landscape, especially in cases where the provision of fully on-line courses are outsourced to a third party (e.g. Pearson, Keypath plus others), and the university only provides the product (course con­tent), with the third party providing most if not all of the marketing and student support during the study life of the student.

Another recent variation on the theme of specialisation is the col­laboration between RMIT Universi­ty and Apple to provide a suite of tailor-made programming courses using Apple’s App Development with Swift curriculum.

“Novice coders and aspiring iOS developers will be supported by RMIT’s expert teachers to unleash their creativity and entrepreneur­ial skills to join the booming app economy” (RMIT website).

External parties are likely to be more skilled and nim­ble in the areas of recruit­ment (marketing and sales), product delivery (via digital channels), as well as stu­dent (customer) support, with each of these ele­ments common in most in­dustry sectors. Will Google, Facebook and/or Micro­soft become the Amazons of the university education sector?

Beyond being a source of fund­ing, governments will continue to exert a strong impact over the sector by means of setting “per­formance standards” for all exist­ing and potential new universities. Existing universities unable to achieve the required performance standards – quality of product, student feedback, transparency and financial viability – will have their license for accreditation reviewed/revoked. The university market will be opened up to new players so long as they meet the required performance standards.

How will these trends  affect research?

The push for greater transparen­cy and deemed “return on invest­ment from public funding” will extend into the field of research. European countries and univer­sities appear to have understood the importance of directly linking university research to industry – and thus rank high on levels of collaboration between the two groups. Often-cited examples in­clude the Max Planck, Fraunhofer and Leibniz Institutes in Germany.

Other models could relate to research devoted to societal issues – aging societies, gender, homelessness – with partnerships between university researchers and relevant community groups and government policy makers. This is the model upon which the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions in the Netherlands was founded.

What is clear is that the success­ful models are very deliberate in structuring research relationships between industry and universi­ties – not at the whim of individual researchers.

The famous Magna Charta Universitatum – a document to celebrate the fundamental values and principles of the university, in particular institutional autonomy and academic freedom – will need to be re-interpreted well before 2040 to encourage universities to seek and develop relevant part­nerships and collaborations with the broader society in which they live. Autonomy and academic freedom can still co-exist with the notion of contributing to the broader society and being ac­countable to that society.

Universities in 2040 will be pro­viding course content to a wide variety of students and organisa­tions, with a suitable mix of face to face and on-line delivered content. Almost all services outside the core product development/cura­tion will be provided by specialist third parties. The flow of students into research degrees and further research will be facilitated and di­rected through dedicated – poten­tially global – institutes established around key themes deemed of most relevance to the current and future well-being of societies.

Greater levels of engagement by universities at all levels of society will enhance their perceived value, reputation and connectedness with societies.

The days of universities as ivory towers will be a very distant mem­ory.

1Clohesy, L. (2015). The Casualisation of Academ­ia: Impacts on Australian Universities. The AIM Network.


Peter Rohan is an Independent Strategic Advisor and Program Director, and a sought after commentator on Higher Education following his almost 30 years as a Partner at Ernst & Young, where he provided consulting advice and project direction, and worked extensively nationally and internationally. Mr. Rohan held a number of leadership positions during his career: National Head of Education, National Head of Business Consulting, Global Account Executive in Financial Services based in Paris. Peter’s work has encompassed strategic planning, operational reform, market repositioning, partnership negotiations and business cases, and includes the sponsorship of and contribution to the key EY White Papers on “University of the Future” (2012) and “Higher Education and the Power of Choice”(2011).

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