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J R Soc Med. 2002 January; 95(1): 48–49.
PMCID: PMC1279153

Universities in the Future

A stated aim of the UK Government is to have 50% of young people going to university by 2010. We can all agree that a good education is the grounding required by every young man or woman who aspires to make a mark in life. But do the existing universities provide what good students want, and do they offer preparation for an increasingly complex and varied pattern of work?

A great expansion of universities in the UK came about in the 1960s. Before that time only a very small proportion of young men and women went to university. Then in the 1990s we had the abolition of the binary line and the former polytechnics became universities. We now have in excess of 100 universities providing a wide variety of courses both academic and vocational. But the question is increasingly heard: what are universities for? One recent investigation showed that students reading media studies had a substantially better chance of getting a job than those in more traditional subjects. An argument has ensued between those who say that a university education is a means to getting a good job and those who regard academic study (training the mind) as an end in itself. Until the era of Margaret Thatcher the second view held sway in government and the Civil Service, many of those who achieved high office having a background in the classics.

Universities are going through troubled times. They are all under pressure to provide more and better education for an increasing number of students at a lower cost per head. There is then the vexed question of teaching and research. Should some universities concentrate entirely on teaching and leave research to the better equipped and better funded? Is there a case for encouraging certain universities to become centres of excellence in research, concentrating on the graduate rather than undergraduate school as some do in the American system? There is no doubt in my mind that the best type of university is one which combines both teaching and research and that the best tutors are characterized by an excellent overall understanding of their subject together with involvement in front-line research. For all academics life has become more difficult with the Research Assessment Exercise, and those who might formerly have abandoned research in favour of teaching dare not do so for fear of being judged unproductive. The tendency to measure everything also reaches out to the Teaching Assessment Exercise, with its periodic judgments on the quality and added value of university teaching.

This all leads one to ask whether the university of the future, with all the electronic communication methods at its disposal, will be able to uphold the values of the more traditional universities. How universities will look in 25 years is the subject of Universities in the Future1. The UK Foresight Programme, managed by the Office of Science and Technology in the Department of Trade and Industry, is about developing visions. Its brief for this publication was ‘State your vision for higher education at the end of the next 25 years’. The volume, edited by Professor Michael Thorne from the Open University, contains contributions from a range of academics, businessmen and strategic and economic advisers from the UK, North America and Australia. The background to the views on higher education for the next 25 years is the long-term future of universities as currently structured and the commercially oriented developments taking place in higher education in the United States. The development of the Internet, distance learning and globalization will affect the structure of the university of the future. Face-to-face teaching will survive, but perhaps closer to where individuals live rather than in a residential university. Distance learning may be an add-on or comprise the whole course. Academic terms will probably disappear and students will start their courses when and where they wish, sometimes only taking one part of them. Failure in an examination will be an incitement to try again.

An increasing commercial input into universities will bring about many changes and by 2025 we can expect some corporations to be awarding degrees. Partnerships will flourish—for example, between publishers and universities—and there will be more collaboration with industry for research purposes. With the end of the residential university and the capability of telematic learning, the opportunity exists to create mega-universities. These will have more than 100 000 students and the resultant economies in faculty time will strengthen the likelihood of institutional survival.

For the students, access to these new universities will probably be through call centres that match people to places according to their aspirations and qualifications. Universities will, and already have begun to, move away from teaching to learning and the ‘me’ university will develop, putting the student first and providing a lifelong learning network. Education will be competency-based, and the experience of the Western Governors' University (as described by Max Farbman) shows how collaboration between 19 states and territories in the USA has increased access to higher education. WGU is a virtual university where students can gain access to credits and competency-based degrees through the website.

So what will the universities of 2025 look like? Will they all look the same? There are several possible options. First of all, do nothing. Universities that adopt this strategy will probably disappear. Next, development of the virtual universities (for example, a middle-Asia web university) could provide education at low cost to the student. Another low-cost type of university would abandon all courses that could not be run at a profit or that would not register in the top one or two of the market share. These would remain campus-based but would concentrate on providing a guaranteed quality of outcome for the student. A fourth alternative might be for the best universities to set up branch campuses—for example, Harvard in Australia or Oxford in Japan. Finally, there could be the World School University, which would be specialized, perhaps starting out as a faculty, with a rich endowment to support a strong research programme. It would have a physical base but multiple outlets teaching all over the world, linked by a strong communications network.

In 2025 employment will possibly be less secure and students will be looking for higher education that allows flexible study and lifelong learning. Most of the educational information will be held electronically, and the learning media will include the Internet, interactive educational software and electronic communication between student and teacher. Print on paper, though surviving, will not be the major part of the information base. Lecturers will need to change their ways and develop teamworking to include other professionals in, for example, software development and even project management. This teamworking will provide a critical analysis of the learning materials at each stage. Quality assurance will become even more demanding than at present. Continuous assessment of the learning process will be the norm and accreditation degrees will be based on competencies. Increasingly, degrees will be self-accredited.

Where will the money come from? For students attending a web-based university, the cost should be less, especially if they are working from home. However, the resources to provide all the new media and new learning will have to come from somewhere. Partnerships with employers, such as regional development agencies or commercial companies, will become commonplace. Many universities will find themselves in partnership with large corporations that sponsor their activities. With the development of information and communication technologies the scope of the mega-universities will increase and become more international. What does this all mean for medical education? Will students learn adequately from web-based courses that offer scant face-to-face contact with teachers? Some medical schools already offer remote teaching and perhaps the Open University will become a major provider. What new techniques of teaching and learning will be required to produce the doctors of the next generation? This is indeed food for thought. With limited resources many universities have hit on the idea of becoming more specialized, particularly in disciplines where research equipment is expensive. The Institute of Molecular Medicine in Oxford has shown how bringing together experts, even if only briefly, can improve cross fertilization between related disciplines. But this trend can be taken too far and it is heartening to see new medical schools being set up in universities with no tradition in medical education. The two cultures of C P Snow still exist and we should think very hard before abandoning the mixture of arts and sciences.

The man from the eighteenth century coming to visit us today would see astonishing changes in transport, communication and medicine. But he would immediately recognize the teaching methods. How students learn today is how they learnt more or less 200 years ago. As Universities in the Future amply shows, the time is ripe for a step-change in our learning society.


1. Thorne M, ed. Universities in the Future (Office of Science and Technology Foresight Programme). London: Department of Trade and Industry, 2001 [252 pp; available free of charge from DTI ( )].

Articles from Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine are provided here courtesy of Royal Society of Medicine Press