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Evidence-based optimist, or profitable doomsday futurology: which take on higher education will prevail?

  • 8 September 2020
  • By Trevor Treharne

This blog was kindly contributed by Trevor Treharne, the Communications and Digital Engagement Officer of the ESRC/OFSRE (Economic and Social Research Council / Office for Students and Research England) Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE), a partnership of six UK and nine international universities headquartered in the University of Oxford’s Department of Education.

Academics find themselves teetering on the precipice. A series of cataclysmic scenarios await and higher education is a ship too sluggish to readily steer itself clear of the many and multiplying icebergs. Something new and clever is needed, immediately. Hire a top-notch consultant, now!

This is the imagined problem that is posed by higher education futurologists, management consultants and various other ‘thought leaders’ hovering on the edge of the sector, some of whom make very good money from the predictions business.

The narrative goes like this.

Step 1: Several factors challenge and ‘disrupt’ traditional academic conventions. These factors are usually some combination of the following: the transformation of graduate employment, raised student expectations, a technological revolution, expansion and public financing constraints, policy turbulence and growing global competition. To this mixture, the up-to-the-mark futurologist now adds the Covid-19 pandemic and summons up its anxieties.

Step 2: This future of rapid and continuous change creates uncertainty for those who manage and work in universities. In order to respond and adapt to the disruption, they will need to transform themselves fully and everybody within reaching distance. The academic workforce of the future will have to be more ‘agile’ and ‘flexible’, more ‘professionalised’ and subject to greater ‘specialisation’. One scenario from Ernst and Young even predicts that academics will largely become freelance workers operating across several higher education institutions and businesses.

Step 3, and here is the hard message: the conservativism, ‘silo mentality’, resistance to interdisciplinarity and useful practical applications, sentimentality about low-value courses, etc, and of course the inherently glacial pace of change in public universities must be overcome. Bluntly, the legacy higher education ‘workforce’ will have to be dismantled. Fortuitously, however, amid the global pandemic and its upending of lives, communities and institutions, these essential transformations will be expedited.

Is this the ordained future for higher education and those in academic positions? In an ever-morphing world, will every step take us closer to the abyss? Perhaps it is not essential to draw this conclusion.

Instead, suggests William Locke in Chapter Two of Changing Higher Education for a Changing World, a new book from the UK ESRC-supported Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE), we might evoke a less fashionable alternative – evidence-based optimism, an alternative that offers a more convincing picture of higher education and more constructive pathways to change.

Myth makers

In his critique of doomsday futurology in higher education, Locke argues that the first aspect to consider is the fault lines in the approaches taken by futurologists. These self-appointed experts on higher education draw on interviews and surveys of university heads, senior policy makers and key stakeholders, such as business leaders and graduate employers. They rarely seek the views of staff or students working and studying in higher education institutions, let alone consult the existing academic research on developments and trends within higher education systems here and abroad.

Cataclysmic futurology caricatures existing models of public higher education. Universities are said to be traditional, ‘twentieth-century’ institutions that are academic-orientated rather than student, or customer, focused. They are also painted as ‘too similar to each other’ and dominated by an ageing academic workforce reluctant to change. The futurologists almost exclusively cite previous management consultancy reports, policy documents and newspaper articles. They recycle myths and folklore that have become all too familiar as a result, but frankly, do not stand up to empirical scrutiny.

Academic careers by evidence

One area in which evidence is mostly lacking concerns the actual work that people do inside universities. Futurologists ignore much of the existing research evidence about academic work. For example, they assume the academic profession is still largely homogenous and the vast majority of academics are in permanent positions, undertaking both teaching and research. The evidence says otherwise. There is burgeoning research literature on the diversification of the academic ‘profession’, the wide range of entrants (including from other professions), the different career paths they take and the erosion of the linear academic career. Further, part-time, fixed-term, contingent, teaching-only and non-tenure track faculty have grown significantly in the UK, Australia and United States in recent years.

What is the alternative, then, to bad futurology and its often highly paid but poor-quality generalisations and prescriptions about academic work? We need an accurate analysis of the current academic workforce, based on the best research evidence and analysis of trends in the recent, mid- and long-term past. This must include rigorous analysis of existing examples of effective and successful practice that could offer embryonic illustrations of developments for the future. The European Union-sponsored ‘Universities of the Future’ programme and the University of Lincoln’s 21st Century Lab – Thinking Ahead are two examples.

More evidence-based and iterative approaches can ensure that we evaluate the full-range of factors, including the socio-cultural, political and environmental (and even quasi-legal) factors as well as the economic and technological. We can then avoid reductionist approaches that privilege particular activities and deterministic assumptions that prioritise specific outcomes.

It is this spirit of more grounded evaluation and foresight that informs the 17 chapters of Changing Higher Education for a Changing World. Using work from CGHE’s current research projects, the book explains the rise and rise of higher education alongside its current and future role in modern life.

The book addresses key issues such as: whether and how research universities improve societal equality; whether UK students are burdened with too much debt; whether learning technologies will abolish the need for bricks-and-mortar higher education institutions or the two modes offer a positive-sum set of possibilities; and what countries can do to improve their scientific performance.

It is evidence-led insights, not crass and opportunistic futurology, that best informs our current view of higher education and helps us plot its next destinations.

Note to Reader

This article is partly based on ‘Visions of Higher Education Futures. The Shape of Things to Come?’ a chapter by William Locke in the new CGHE book Changing Higher Education for a Changing World (2020), available now through Bloomsbury at

Use the discount code CGHE20 at checkout for 35% off.

1 comment

  1. albert wright says:

    Glad to see Universities researching themselves.

    Thanks for the discount tip too. At £90 or even £81 or 35% off it may not become a best seller .

    No doubt several (most) Universities will find a budget to justify its inclusion in their libraries.

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