After the Pause: The Unspoken Futures of Higher Education
By Alexandra Whittington
What are the most surprising or unexpected plausible future scenarios imaginable for the university?
Even before the pandemic, mainstream debate about the future of higher education tended to oversimplify the issue into a binary choice between online learning and face-to-face instruction. In practice, it is extremely optimistic to believe that things could be settled so easily. The pandemic, in unleashing the unthinkable, has set the ideal conditions for higher education to be completely transformed.
The unprecedented level of creativity needed to navigate the lockdown and reopening of universities has shown that there is more flexibility in most tertiary organizations than previously thought. This article presents scenarios for the possible future of higher education that emphasize high-risk, high-impact, low-probability potential outcomes as opposed to “business as usual” forecasts. Assuming that the pandemic has indeed created a “new normal,” what might the university of the future look like?
The images of the future in these scenarios look nothing like the universities of today. They are meant to highlight the most extraordinary possible outcomes from the pandemic’s vast disruption of higher education that started in 2020. Each one is written from a highly student-centric viewpoint, not truly accounting for how faculty or staff would respond. However, future scenarios offer the rare chance to encapsulate a serious visionary possibility for what could be. In the dark aftermath of the pandemic period, it is only fair that we should get to dream.
This chapter backcasts three extreme future scenarios (in reverse order) from their projected dates of 2030, 2025, and 2022.
2030: Meltdown and Brain Drain
By the end of 2020, the writing was on the wall, but the reality had not yet sunk in. Western universities from the US to the UK and Canada found the re-enrollment of international students drop to almost null. Historically, the budgetary and tuition structure of many of the most prestigious universities had long been bolstered by predictable waves of international tuition fees freely flowing from Asian nations such as China, the Middle East, and South America.
A potent mix of fear, economic fragility, and geopolitics suppressed international enrollment until 2025. In that five-year period, American research centers suffered and in a short time the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) workforce had actually shrunk in size.
A post-Brexit UK saw a decline in students from the European Union (EU) as well as the regular student source countries further east. Canada’s more humane pandemic response and recovery helped the nation attract more students than other English-speaking countries.
In the five years following the pandemic, China and other Asian nations enhanced their universities and began to attract more Western scholars to conduct research. A reverse brain drain kicked into high gear for the next decade. Innovation, research, and academic clout shifted east because the money followed the students. As a result, by 2030, a shortage of qualified doctors was common in the West, which exacerbated the healthcare industry decline that followed the pandemic. The big STEM companies relocated to be near the universities where they recruited their future workforce — in countries like South Korea, India, and across the Asia Pacific region.
2025: Climate Change Preppers
After the pandemic, experimental collectives began to appear in Europe and North America with the explicit purpose of preparing society for inevitable climate change impacts. They were similar to universities in the sense that they attracted young people, however, they had refocused their priorities; they wanted to figure out what to do with their lives while saving the planet. But these collectives did not offer degrees or classes, as it was more of an opportunity to conduct practical environmental activism and research while exploring nature.
The pandemic was jarring too many individual members of Gen Z and those that came after them, and it seemed to have awoken something in their generational zeitgeist. After completing secondary education during the chaotic years of the pandemic period, many young people had lost their taste for formal schooling. A large number of them viewed the pandemic as a sign of how on-the-brink we really were as a species and, though it was too late to prevent the virus from becoming a pandemic, it felt like there was still enough time, and growing global momentum and support, to stop the climate crisis.
So, by taking over the abandoned facilities of universities that had moved exclusively to online education, self-organizing groups of militant climate change preppers made it their mission to research, advocate, and inform society about the coming apocalypse and how to prevent it. They wrote books, spoke out in public venues, hosted webinars, and unleashed social media campaigns. They put themselves to the test in extreme natural settings, camped out, and learned survival skills in order to eventually teach others.
The preppers became experts in, and taught, first aid and first responder tactics. They practiced climate change rescue scenarios — simulating people trapped by wildfires and floods. Surviving the pandemic had made them more aware of how easily lives could be lost. Hence, they were fearless and had nothing to lose or look forward to in terms of financial security or social mobility, as the global economy wavered for years on end. The preppers were funded by royalties and fees generated by streaming the entire program live online as reality programming.
2022: Lockdown University
The pandemic had the higher education system on a teeter-totter of online/face-to-face until 2022, then things leveled out somewhat. But, because business and the economy had been so severely impacted by the lockdown, new courses and areas of study were being requested by the students and their future employers. This new direction for higher learning prepared students to work in an unstable job market with frequent disruptions.
Business courses were retooled to offer expertise in touch-free customer service and delivery, for example. Students wanted support and coaching for online job interviews and how to network in a non-superficial way. Economics professors embraced increasingly important fields of research which sought to measure different forms of unpaid work, caring work, and housework as contributors to GDP.
Essential worker roles, which required no college degree, were gaining stature in the post-pandemic society. Some students were eschewing college altogether as the ideal job preparation path. Instead, many young people enrolled at university to pursue personal learning goals. Many students planned on taking essential worker jobs after graduation, as those now paid more and could lead to further opportunities. In any case, ever since the US minimum wage was raised to over US$45 per hour in 2022, universities were eager to keep their students happy. Meanwhile, universal basic income had gone truly universal and every nation offered some kind of support since no one really had to go to college to get a job anymore. They did not actually have to work for money unless they wanted to.
So, universities were filled with people pursuing their own purpose but also wanting to give back in some meaningful way. The pandemic had renewed student interest in things like home economics and self-sufficiency activities such as gardening, cooking, and baking. People wanted to know they could take care of themselves during any kind of emergency. They also wanted to learn and teach others essential survival skills like foraging and carpentry. One popular focus was cosmetology, so that people could undertake their own beauty care regimes and cut and style their own hair. Demand rose for other pandemic-related subjects, like epidemiology and public health. This trend lasted for a decade in higher education, reshaping course offerings and scholarship for a generation.
It’s difficult to see the future clearly since predictions are clouded with assumptions and bias. Most futurists will argue there are not one but many futures — which is a valid but confusing assertion. There is only one present, as everyone knows, and each of us has only one lifetime to create the future we want for ourselves. To the extent that higher education is an important part of choosing our own future, it is relevant to examine how the institutions of higher learning might evolve in our lifetimes.
This article was originally published as a chapter in “Aftershocks and Opportunities, vol. 2” by Fast Future Publishing.