Universities have historically been relied on for creation and dispersion of knowledge. Initially, they attracted knowledge seekers driven by curiosity. Later, developmental universities became a common phenomenon. In the recent decades, universities are seen as units of knowledge production. Ever since knowledge has replaced other resources as the main driver of economic growth, the corporate interest and market influence in institutions producing and transacting knowledge have increased.
The acceleration in knowledge explosion resulted in faster obsolescence of what people know, leading to increased demand for new knowledge and higher education places. The public investment could not keep pace with the expanding social demand for higher education and it paved the way for transformation of universities. The entrepreneurial universities, private universities and online universities relying on non-state funding became innovative arrangements for higher learning.
The market mediation in decision-making focussed on the economic value of investing in higher education. It laid less emphasis both on the developmental role and social responsibilities of universities in passing on the inheritance and cultural capital of the past and present generations to the next.
“The nature of sharing of economic roles and social responsibilities between public and private institutions will define the future of learning.”
In my view, universities will continue to remain the major sources of knowledge production even when channels of production and diffusion of knowledge are diversified. Universities will also be shaping the collective imagination to design an inclusive framework for development. In this scenario, the traditional brick and mortar universities may survive only by breaking away with tradition.
It seems that universities will maintain their near monopoly both in training of knowledge producers and facilitating knowledge transactions. The generations of doctoral students will remain the backbone for future knowledge production. The brick and mortar system will become more focused on long degree programmes concentrating on the graduate and doctoral studies.
The future of universities lies in their capacity to offer flexible pathways to learning. Studying in multiple flexible modes, switching between on-campus, blended and fully online modes as per the convenience of the learners may become common modes of higher learning. Students may opt for courses from different departments of a university and of other universities to acquire all the credits required for a degree.
While certification will be based on credits, the modes of credit accumulation may be flexible. Universities may also offer short certificate courses along with long degree programmes. It is probable that institutions awarding degrees as the only form of credential may disappear. The most common model may be the one where the students may graduate with one degree and multiple short cycle credentials.
The brick and mortar universities may lose its hold in imparting job-specific skills. The non-university institutions will be fast expanding their influence and attracting students for skills training. Becoming work-ready may cease to be a good reason to go to a university; instead many students may seek admissions in non-university sectors to be trained in employable skills. Online courses and fully-accredited online universities may become a common feature to supplement institution-based learning and skill formation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has already accelerated the transition to new modes of learning. Even the worst critics and those who resisted transition to online modes are fast embracing virtual learning facilities. While digital inequality is a topic of discussion, mobile-phone-based curricular transactions are breaking the barriers to entry into the digital learning world. Future universities will have less control on the catchment area of their outreach. The challenge will be to maintain equity in the quality of knowledge transaction and social interactions through promoting safe spaces in higher learning.
Professor N.V. Varghese is currently Vice Chancellor of the National University of Educational Plannning and Administration, New Delhi. He was the founding Director of the Centre for Policy Research in Higher Education (CPRHE/NIEPA), New Delhi and Head of Governance and Management in Education at the International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP/UNESCO), Paris. He was the Secretary General and responsible for the Secretariat of the International Working Group on Education (IWGE) and was also responsible for managing an Asian regional network ANTRIEP.