Universities and Possible Futures

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.

A constraining idea of the university

A constraining idea of the university

I started to write a social media post about this but realised I couldn't fit in what I needed to say in that format, even with Twitter's 280 characters.

The Times Higher Education allows partner emails and a few days ago I got one about The University of Sydney's new campaign on 'unlearning'. Nice word, I use that a lot in the context of we need to unlearn our assumptions about the past to be able to engage with the future with an open mind.

Random emerging thoughts on the future of the university

Random emerging thoughts on the future of the university

I'm doing my PhD on the future of the university as a social institution. I've spent the past little while lining everything up, connecting all the dots in terms of theoretical framework, methods etc. The stuff that holds the PhD together. Somewhere in my brain has been a series of random thoughts about the story I'll be telling. It's yet to fully emerge of course, but there are signals of it here with me today. This post relates one of these thoughts.

Universities as a social institution are fragile - not in the tangible sense. Their buildings aren't going to fall down anytime soon, and unless governments have a radical change of mind about their value they will be with us for a while yet. But the intangible side of universities - the idea of the university - that is embedded in the people who work in them is fragile and always has been.

So what is a university exactly?


I was asked recently to talk about what I thought I university is - as opposed to what it does. This distinction is at the core of my PhD work in its current form. I'm focusing on the ideas of the university that define its role and purpose, the invisible and often taken for granted assumptions about what a university is and should be. I'm looking at the university as a whole, not a sum of its parts.

I see a lot in the literature about the university as an organisation but when I read it, the work is usually about 'higher education', or specific university functions, which is what a university does. This is the current version of how I'm explaining the distinction:

"In the thesis too, there is a deliberate differentiation between what a university is and should be, and what it does and how it does it. This is done to focus attention not only on the visible outcomes of the university’s activity such as teaching, research and management and governance structures and systems – that is, what a university does and how it does it. This visible space is shaped by the invisible side of the university, those beliefs held by people as individuals and the collective cultural system that frame thinking about what a university is and should bethat is, its purpose and social role. As the thesis will demonstrate, both sides of the university are integral to thinking about the university’s future as a social institution."

When I was asked what I thought, I responded along the lines of 'a university is a space where people gather to collaborate on how to make society better'. Not terribly elegant but the essence of what I believe. The power of a university as an organisation, as social institution, comes from the people in it working together to achieve social impact.

Yet today, we have contested ideas, values, beliefs and cultures that shape thinking about what a university is and that keep people in universities apart, not collaborating. The multiplicity of ideas keep them trapped a wider system that preferences data, measurement and evidence and reduces people to assets and capital. It is a system that demands control and hierarchies, not trust and networks. It is a system where one idea of the university is dominant at the expense of all others. And in the attempts of various groups to hang on to their cultural construct of the idea of the university is, what a university does is disconnecting from the societies where it is seeking to achieve impact.

Now, of course, my PhD challenge is to demonstrate how and why I think this is happening! One thing that is amusing as I do the research is that many of the issues we think have emerged today or in the last couple of decades are actually old issues - I've found references to business incursions into the universities in the early 1900s and other challenges referenced in the mid-1800s for example. All of them are concerned with protecting cherished ideas about what a university is - their idea of a university that they hold dear and believe to be true. And in a foresight sense, at those earlier times, these writings were weak signals, seeds of the future in that present.

It is pretty clear to me that there are multiple ideas about what a university is and probably always has been. It didn't matter too much in the past when universities could self-define what they were and what they did, but that capacity has pretty much disappeared today as society pushes back and no longer accepts the self-definition. What a university is remains a concept heavily debated, disputed and contested today but the power of the idea underpinning these different views is often not articulated - and that is a problem.

Instead, the idea manifests itself in competing positions, often expressed with great passion and/or vitriol, about who has the right to tell people in universities what to do and how to do it. It's a complex, challenging and painful context that people in universities find themselves in today as they try to hang on to their ideas of the university in the face of the new, the different and beliefs not necessarily steeped in the myriad of interpretations about academic culture, values and traditions.

My PhD research is focusing on the future of the university as a social institution and I'm grappling with these sorts of issues. Will the university as we know it today exist in 20 years? Maybe, maybe not. The power of the idea of the university is a strong cultural construct however, and finding ways to accept the diversity of ideas rather than defending my right idea might just be one way to preserve the university as a place where everyone's ideas are welcome and social impact continues to emerge.

Next Milestone Approaches


My next PhD milestone is my Mid-Candidature Review. I have obviously known this was happening for just a little while now and the last six months have been focused on getting the review report into good shape. I have changed the topic since I reported about it last to Contested Ideas of the University: Enabling or Constraining University Futures. I will not change it again!

Here's an excerpt from the Introduction:

The university is a social institution within which people work to create, maintain and transmit knowledge across the society in which it operates. The university as an organisation provides a structure and operating framework to manage this work and deliver that knowledge to students and other stakeholders. Without a continuing social need or demand for this work however, the university, like all social institutions, risks becoming obsolete.

From the 11th to the mid-20th centuries, the university was adept at maintaining social relevance by adapting what it did and how it did it (Perkin 2007, pp.159–160). Until the last half of the 20th century when the era of what is now called massification emerged (Kenny 2009; Sayers et al. 2010), this resilience in the face of change was derived from the university’s ability to maintain “many of its traditional traits in the face of all manner of social upheaval” (Sanderson & Watters 2006, p. 316). These traditional traits are at the core of the idea of the university, a cultural construct based around a set of organising elements that has remained powerful in its longevity.

And other that captures what is probably the basis of the research:

The ideas constructed by people, how those ideas become real through daily interactions and work and whose idea is dominant at any given time, will shape how the university responds to change and how it approaches its futures. Each interpretation of the idea will generate different views, different images of the future university.

And finally, one that says what I'm going to do:

What sort of future the university has will depend on whose narrative about the university’s role and purpose is being privileged at any point in time, and whether that narrative is derived from past, present or future social needs. Using a foresight framework, this research will problematise the idea of the university and its underpinning assumptions in order to allow its possible futures in 2045 to be explored. This research seeks to explore how the idea and its supporting assumptions as understood today can both enable and constrain possible university futures.

Those of you who have been here before that this is just the beginning of the long haul to completion but I can't tell you how happy I am to be at this stage given my previous false starts.  Onwards!