The University of the Future

Although universities must, and therefore will, change, one thing remains certain: avenues for skills development will remain in demand in the foreseeable future. In fact, it is very likely that industry’s need for a highly skilled workforce will become even greater as time unfolds. What’s truly amazing about the human capacity for knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) is that it is virtually limitless and boundaryless. Because the human mind is infinite, opportunities to shape and improve the human mind are equally infinite. Paradoxically, the more we learn, the more we realize how much we still don’t know, feeding into a desire for even more learning. In this sense, the thirst for knowledge can never be quenched.

You might be thinking, “So, universities are safe then, right? Phew! I mean, if people are so desperate to learn, then the future of the university is surely secure, right?” Well, wrong. I’m sorry to burst your bubble.

The problem with universities is that most are inflexible dinosaurs that, with some exceptions, fail to respond adaptively to the needs of employers. As profit margins get squeezed tighter and tighter and markets become hyper-competitive, employers are looking everywhere for better trained workers. They want someone who can hit the ground running fresh out of university. Unfortunately, many employers are feeling increasingly let down by higher ed.

How long do you think industry is going to put up with an anachronistic “product?” Do you think employers will just continue to trust universities when, year after year, they produce graduates with a mismatch in skills? No, eventually, companies will take training and education into their own hands. Indeed, we can already see some evidence of this shift. Google recently announced their own in-house career certificates, which may well be cheaper and much less time consuming than what the traditional universities offer. It’s as if Google said, “Hey, universities, we gave you a chance. You didn’t deliver. So, we’ll take it from here.”

“How long do you think industry is going to put up with an anachronistic ‘product?’ Do you think employers will just continue to trust universities when, year after year, they produce graduates with a mismatch in skills?”

What does this mean for the future of universities? In essence, it means change or die. In this light, the COVID-19 pandemic may be a blessing in disguise. The ensuing crisis will force universities to adapt. It’s a bit like with humans. We only realize we need to eat right and exercise after our first heart attack. Universities are now facing an existential crisis. I have no doubt that some will emerge victorious: stronger, leaner, and better. They will embrace change and deliver what industry and society want and need from us. Other universities will flounder and die. They will continue to rest on their laurels, assuming, against all reason, that simply because they built it, they will come.

Innovative universities of the future will offer micro-credentials alongside traditional degrees. They will offer flexible and highly engaging online programs that focus on practical skills development. They will (hopefully) do away with the absurd idea that all professors must teach and research. Instead, those roles will be separated in the future so that good teachers can focus on becoming great teachers and good researchers can focus on becoming great researchers. The time has come for every university to look itself in the proverbial eye and ask itself: “Am I capable of real change, or should I just give up?”

Prof. Andrew R. Timming

This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.

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