Universities and Possible Futures

I wrote this post some years ago but never published it. I'm not quite sure why. It was a tale of attending two conferences in 2010 and I've now added in my experience of three more conferences to compare and contrast thinking about the future for the university. And some thoughts of my own about how to shift these conferences to a more futures facing stance.



I attended a forum in Australia where there was much discussion about change in universities. I've been pondering it ever since, as it left me wondering about the state of strategic thinking in the higher education sector. Then I attended the Educause conference earlier this year, and listened to people who were leading that change, and heard about their experiences of trying to adapt to the changing environment in which their institutions operated.

My biggest problem with the Australian forum was that the discussion focused very much on what Richard Slaughter calls the pop futures level, and what Sohail Inayatuallah would call the litany. There were a lot of unchallenged assumptions in the room about what was 'right' and possible, and so the discussion was focused, with a couple of exceptions, on the symptoms of change being felt in universities and addressing those symptoms to make them hurt less, rather than identifying how they could respond more effectively and proactively to the drivers of that change in a more systemic way.

There were many comments about how hard life is for staff  now. Overwhelming workload, pressures, deadlines, stress, lack of direction, busyness were all typical words used in discussions about individuals at work. Moving to discussions about the sector generated a focus on trends such as student demand, internationalisation and quality, not about possible responses to challenges to the fundamental shape and form of the higher education sector. Several presentations used newspaper headlines to demonstrate their points, which was an indicator for me of how shallow the thinking appeared to be.

There was little discussion about how we might need to change the way we see the world and what is 'right' or possible. Or, that we might need to try and understand the potential impact of change in the external environment and prepare for it, rather than reacting when change happen to us (like declining international student numbers). Or crafting new assumptions about doing what universities do to adapt to the new environment that is being shaped around us.


The Educause conference had a different focus to the Australian event and explored, among other things, using educational technology to change the way learning is delivered. I heard more about what was possible rather than what was 'right'. Gary Hamel, one of the keynote speakers, reminded us to treat all our assumptions as hypotheses, and that the longevity of universities is no longer a guarantee of future survival. His comment that resistance to change, or explaining it away, is due in a large part, to the emotional investment of our leaders in the status quo - so getting those leaders to 'let go' to see what's possible becomes a critical challenge for the sector.

The other sessions I went to talked about how new technologies were helping students access content on mobile devices, how Wordpress blogs were changing the dynamics and interactions among students and teachers, and allowing students to co-create their learning experience, how students are developing social based learning to build their own personal network of experts, and becoming free agent learners, untethered to institutions. I heard about the potential for busting some paradigms by etextbooks and mobile devices in learning and was then wowed by Neil Gershenfeld from MIT talking about FabLabs and how the merging of physical and computer science is real, here today. These people are changing the way they work to respond to changes in the external environment in ways that enhanced their work, and student learning.

As expected, rather than resist the technology, such as keeping laptops out of classrooms or turning off mobile phones, they were embracing it, testing it, and using it to respond to challenges 'out there' - they were changing the way they worked. Instead of being trapped in their emotional investment in the status quo, they moved on to build something different, and emergent. They were in the middle of rapid change too, but rather than complain about it and seeking to maintain what is, they were using it to explore what was possible. I don't think their lives are any less busy, or that they feel any less overwhelmed than people in the room in Australia, yet there was a sense of energy and possibility at Educause that I didn't feel here.


I attended an OECD global conference in 2015 where leaders of higher education organisations around the world gathered to address the topic Higher Education Futures. I was excited because by this time I was doing my PhD on the future of the university. I ended up very disappointed. In a room full of very smart people, no one really talked about the future. They mentioned the word, but generally their idea of the future was more of today, tweaked. Same programs, tweaked. Same targets, tweaked.  An online question system gave me the chance to ask questions about the impact of artificial intelligence and no one in any session tackled this question. I kept thinking - what? Is AI not yet on their horizons? One person talked about the future in the sense that I understand it, something we can engage with today, not just observe it. And then someone said during the discussion about letting students co-design their courses: How will students know what they need to study though if we don't tell them? That captured the problem for me - an unquestioned assumption, derived from the past, being applied to an uncertain and unknown future. I came home disappointed, but this conference was the impetus for me to focus my PhD on ideas and unquestioned assumptions about the university and its future.


I then attended the Higher Education Futures Conference at Aarhus University in Copenhagen. Here was a group of researchers actually exploring the future and developing alternatives to today's market driven, neoliberal university. I was energised. It was an academic conference which was good for me, because I'm doing a PhD after all! This research looks at universities from a particular lens, and while it’s not my lens, I learned a couple of things. First was reinforcement of what I’ve always known - that people care about and believe in the university’s traditional role as a public, social institution. It is this deeply held belief in why the university exists that is causing the struggles I see on university campuses today - between survival in a society whose perceptions of the university’s value and relevance and changed, and maintaining the core values that define just what a university is. The second thing was that action is being taken here to, as was stated, ‘not play the game’ anymore. Alternatives were being considered, enacted and made real. This, like the Educause conference, was an example of Horizon 2 thinking - innovation but largely within the existing paradigm. It is a signal though, and one that needs to be tracked.


This year, I went back to the conference I attended in 2010. The theme was focused on the future - Gen Next - the language had changed and there was almost a palpable sense of urgency in the room. People were talking about change and the need to address it, not treat it superficially or explain it away. The first keynote was a great introduction - Jeffrey Bleich, former US Ambassador to Australia, who actually took us to the future and challenged us to think differently, to engage with future today. I was energised by this address but not by much else. Even when sessions had ‘future’ in their titles, the talk is always about forecasting out to the future from the present. The essential question we must now ask is rarely asked: will the future need a university? I walked away with the sense that there was still a lot of talking and not much collective deep thinking - a way of seeking out the University’s possible futures that starts ‘out there’ rather than believing that ‘in here’ thinking will still ensure continuing social relevance for the University.

These conferences bring people together and help networking, and to hear what others are doing in the present. This is an essential function of conferences but increasingly, I want conferences to be about ways to think differently, to move beyond comfort zone thinking, data and certainty to talk about how to engage with the possible in the present.

This means taking a step back, and spending time working to understand what is generating and shaping the changes we are dealing with in the present and that these conferences devote their programs to discussing. I often hear people talk about change shaping the university but that there is little we can do to stop that. I disagree.

We can choose to do nothing - which is essentially when happened when managerialism surfaced in the 1990s and the initial reaction was that it was another fad. It wasn’t. We can choose to act not in the sense of acting to make what we do better but rather to act to shape the impact of emerging change on the University. If we do nothing, then change will shape the university. It will end up with a used future, someone else’s future imposed on the university. It’s too late then.

I want conferences to bring people together to have conversations about the future for the university, not conversations about doing what we to today better and bigger. I don’t want a formulaic conference format with huge exhibition halls, or one that veers to far the other way and becomes too focused on the self to engender collective thinking and action. I want us to move beyond benchmarking and case studies of the present to co-creating possible futures as the starting point for deciding what action to take today.

If strategy processes in universities continue along the current conventional and isomorphic path, then the used future will dominate action. Conferences need to show us how to move beyond that, to a space and a stance where the people in universities, who care about their future, can work together to influence how that future emerges. And doing that in practice will take a commitment to spending time on building a futures-facing strategic thinking capacity in universities, both individual and collective, one underpinned by our foresight capacities, and a willingness on the part of leaders to dedicate people, time, energy and resources to the task.