What if…?

What if…?

If you can make one heap
of all your winnings,
And lose, and start again
at your beginnings.
If you can force your heart
and nerve and sinew,
Yours is the Earth and
everything that’s in it.

“If-“, Rudyard Kipling


What if what was once considered inconceivable in higher education is now a reality?

What if the future of higher education is already being written?

What if all learners and teachers were equal partners in a future vision of higher education?

What if outdated structures of academic learning and design were replaced?

What if there was no such thing as the academic year?

What if learners could join/pause their higher learning when it was convenient to them?

What if there were no final university testing and exit exams?

What if assessment of knowledge, skills and competences was on-going and applied?

What if practical work-based learning for credit was required for all study programmes?

What if cultural intelligence was as equally valued as emotional and cognitive intelligences?

What if character building and global citizenship education was a priority?

What if both teaching and research-intensive institutions were held in equal esteem?

What if higher education institutions offered more than degree level education?

What if there were more standalone courses and modules for life-long learners?

What if technology-enhanced learning was the norm?

What if on-line and on-campus learning were considered equals?

What if the digital divide worked in favour of those who cannot learn remotely?

What if both on-line and on-campus learners were seen as ‘traditional students’?

What if all study programmes were designed together by teachers and employers?

What if universities look for talent in learner diversity?

What if there was gender equality on campus?

What if women were equally represented in university leadership?

What if all universities eliminated discrimination on race, socio-economic background, religion, gender or sexual identity?

What if the potential to succeed was considered equally with prior learning attainment?

What if universities embraced alternative learning pathways for access to higher learning?

What if TVET and higher education saw themselves as equals in tertiary learning?

What if quality assurance was not an act but a habit?

What if learners, teachers and communities defined quality higher education?

What if universities were free to be flexible, agile and reactive?

What if higher learning cooperated with secondary and primary learning institutions?

What if universities worked together to solve the issues enshrined in the SDGs?

What if recognition of prior learning for access to university were the international norm?

What if universities recognized that teachers and faculty are lifelong learners too?

What if continual professional development were an obligation for all university staff?

What if tenure valued community engagement and research output equally?

What if academic integrity and values were safeguarded in all universities?

What if all forms of academic fraud were eliminated?

What if academic freedom, free speech and institutional autonomy were universal?

What if universities strived to be unique rather than to compete?

What if globally all universities cooperated on their teaching, learning and research?

What if universities were to change in step with changing times and needs?

What if everyone in a university believed this?

What if everyone had the courage to make this happen?


Then what?


The parallax of the pandemic for higher education is that whilst it has created heartbreaking misery for millions, it has also revolutionized higher education. It has created hitherto unimagined opportunities, access, hope and courage to try something new and to test the future of higher learning. 2020 may very well turn out to be year 1 of finally addressing, in a truly meaningful way, the manifesto of the future university we need and deserve.


“There can be no if, or when. We now know all too well that anything can happen and anything is possible.”




Peter Wells is the Higher Education Chief at UNESCO and co-leads the UNESCO Qualifications Passport for Refugees and Vulnerable Migrants. Prior, Peter was a Higher Education Specialist and Director of the UNESCO’s European Centre for Higher Education. He is author of strategy papers and monographs on higher education reforms, quality assurance, and inclusion in national HE systems. Peter has taught at the HE and TVET levels in several countries. He holds a MA International Relations and a PhD Quality Enhancement of Higher Education Systems.

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