Will European Universities in 2040 Still Teach and Research?

Will European Universities in 2040 Still Teach and Research?

Experience has shown that forecasts over a 20 years’ period are almost always off the mark and yet they draw their value from how they contribute to analysing and shaping the future. Most papers or books with the title “The end of…” got it wrong, or had to be substantially reinterpreted ‘a posteriori’. Universities, soon to be one-thousand years old institutions, will still exist in 20 years, but they will have changed. The vision which follows is what we believe might happen, not necessarily what we would like to happen.

Universities will still be performing the same types of activities in 2040, as their core business of generating, refining, explaining, transmitting, disseminating, keeping and applying knowledge will remain of value for society. The two main historical activities, namely education and research, as well as the more modern ‘third mission’ of engaging with society in a variety of ways will still hold, although with major changes due to the use of Artificial Intelligence for teaching and research purposes.

Blue sky research will continue to be typical to universities, and research targeted to address immediate societal needs will be performed by private companies and equity. Research activity will be done more in collaborative clusters of organisations including businesses, and will be less distributed geographically. The opposite will happen with teaching, which will be even more spread out and closer to the citizens: despite the ubiquity of and accessibility to digitally supported learning materials, the ‘blended learning’ model, combining e-learning with teacher/tutor-learner interaction, will dominate and the person-to-person contact will remain of great value. In fact, that is what will have to be paid for privately. Learning about how to carry out research will be an integral part of teaching at universities. It is unclear if universities will in general offer non-regular, professional, lifelong, senior citizen learning, and in this case, if it will be only based on their knowledge specialisations.

The wisdom of the majority, supported by social media, will not make obsolete the role of the universities as keepers of the quality assurance related to knowledge, but rather the contrary:

The low average quality of the immense number of new bits of information (big data) will make the role of universities more prominent in extracting from it insightful knowledge and help achieve a deep understanding.

Computers are today able to extract trends and patterns, but (not yet) generate new knowledge as such. A sort of generation of average quality knowledge might soon be possible by artificial intelligence, but the most valuable knowledge lies usually not in the trivial or most evident conclusions, but in the outliers, that is, in relevant but difficult to interpret data, often including hidden insights.

At least until 2030 this will be better done by human, maybe technologically supported ‘brains’, rather than by artificial brains. The scientific method is an integral part of the research quality assurance, and its further development will be in the hands of universities, as well as ethical and moral issues related to scientific and technological breakthroughs of unchecked and potentially threatening consequences for society. Universities will continue to be the place where one learns to think in-depth, to be a responsible member of society, to dialogue, to value knowledge above ideology or belief, and to do research. Educating and training primary and secondary school teachers how to teach effectively in extremely diverse classrooms will become an even more urgent challenge for universities, and this will be one of their most relevant activities for society.

Universities will be highly multidisciplinary fora where in-depth knowledge and insights will flow openly and seamlessly between disciplines. The research activity of universities will be enhanced and new interdisciplinary domains of knowledge will emerge continuously. The education mission of universities will become largely specialised as advances in the field of neurosciences unveil the way our brains learn. New ways of presenting knowledge in all disciplines will enable university students to learn faster than nowadays. Even more, new, more personalised ways of teaching and learning will reduce school dropouts and more and better educated pupils will be intellectually well-prepared to succeed through tertiary education.

The successful inclusion of even larger proportions of the youngsters in secondary schools, will make tertiary studies ever more necessary for a successful professional career. This will lead to a larger diversity in goals, resources and performances of the universities in Europe, probably unwanted by many, and perhaps difficult to recognize at first. Efficiency and effectiveness will be a strong demand or even an imposition by governments as responsible and accountable for the use of public money. Universities will never be like private companies, because their goals will continue to be radically different. This limits the extent to which business governance and administration will substitute the more collegial, participatory university model. In fact, university governance will show a larger diversity of models too, as the institutional missions themselves diverge.


Professor Rolf Tarrach is President of the European University Association (EUA), an independent, non-governmental association representing over 800 universities in Europe and 33 National Rectors Conferences. Before becoming President of EUA in 2015, he had been rector of the University of Luxembourg for 10 years. He studied Physics at the University of Valencia and obtained his Doctorate from the University of Barcelona. He subsequently served as a postdoctoral researcher at CERN, Geneva, and was a professor of theoretical physics at the Universities of Valencia and Barcelona. Over the years, he has held several prestigious positions including President of CSIC (the Spanish Scientific Research Council), Chair of the European Heads of Research Council and President of the Academic Cooperation Association (ACA). Rolf Tarrach has published more than 100 papers in theoretical high energy physics, quantum field theory, quantum mechanics and quantum information theory, and has published four books. He has been honoured with a Doctor Honoris Causa degree from the University of Saint Petersburg, Russia, and another from the University of Liège, Belgium, and was awarded eight official prizes. He has been Dean of the School of Physics and Vice-Rector of the University of Barcelona.


Dr. Lidia Borrell-Damian is Director for Research and Innovation (R&I) at EUA since 2014. Previously, she held the positions of EUA Head of Partnerships and Senior Programme Manager. In her current capacity, she is responsible for the overall portfolio of EUA’s R&I activities. She coordinates EU R&I policy development based on the evidence provided by EUA institutional members and the National Rectors’ Conferences, and manages strategic relations with the European Institutions and other stakeholder organisations. Her areas of work include the EU Funds for R&I; the European Research Area priorities; the EU Digital Agenda; Open Science and Doctoral Education. She also coordinates science policy input through the EUA-Energy and Environment Platform (EUA-EPUE). Lidia Borrell-Damian holds a Doctorate in Chemistry, Chemical Engineering Specialty, from the University of Barcelona (1987). Prior to joining EUA in 2006, she was Director for Research at Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona (2003-2005). Previously, she worked in a chemical company in Spain as the R&D Deputy Director for two years. Between 1999 and 2002 she held several positions in academia, including 10 years as an Assistant Professor at the University of Barcelona and four years as a Visiting Scholar at North Carolina State University, USA and at The University of Western Ontario, Canada.

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