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What will the future hold in terms of geopolitics, digitalisation and democracy? How will this affect universities? This University World News piece delves into different scenarios, offering a reflection on the very role of universities.

How will big trends influence universities in the coming decade? What can they do to be active players? In order to better understand how universities can shape and respond to future developments, the European University Association (EUA) has sketched out possible scenarios and pathways forward based on different futures for geopolitics, artificial intelligence and digitalisation as well as the course of democracy.

In terms of geopolitical change, the big question is to what extent the world will remain open to academic cooperation or if the rivalry between the US and China, in particular, will divide the globe in different camps that compete or co-exist. In the scenarios discussed, these could be value-based alliances – such as the alliance of democracies proposed by US President Biden - or countries and alliances that accept each other’s differences while they compete for power and resources. There is also the hope for a resurgence of a multilateral, rules-based order with common global values. In all these scenarios, universities would seek to keep global dialogue open. However, competition for talent across the globe would persist as well. Particularly, the multilateral scenario is attractive for enabling free cooperation. If Europe continues to favour democracy and sustainability, this would also foster its attractivity for global talent. The classic tension between cooperation and competition in universities’ global strategies persists in all geopolitical scenarios outlined in the publication.

Regarding the developments in digitalisation, artificial intelligence and the effect on labour markets, the role of universities in reskilling and upskilling the work force is central. As we do not yet know the full impact that digitalisation and automatisation might have on labour markets, one could imagine a situation in which jobs are lost and others are not created, resulting in much smaller, possibly more elitist universities. The opposite might also become true: universities grow through massive needs of reskilling and upskilling as new types of jobs replace those that are automated. In this situation, universities would need to invest heavily in lifelong learning as the body of learners will be even more diverse than today.

The role of big technology companies is highly pertinent regarding digitalisation. As universities become more digital and collect increasing amounts of data, they also become more integrated in the data economy. Technology companies might be collecting this data also through the platforms that they provide to universities for management, cloud services, online learning and teaching and possibly learning analytics. As a result, this could well lead to a further marketisation of higher education. There are also present and real risks of universities losing control of the data that they produce, as well as being increasingly dependent on private service providers. This future is already very much upon us.

The development of political systems and the course of democracy in Europe will also be important for universities. This will influence their framework conditions and determine the societal role they will play. The open, sustainable and autonomous university, which is EUA’s vision stated in the seminal publication “Universities without walls”, requires a free flow of knowledge, the possibility to use evidence critically and the capacity to make its own decisions.

The legal protection and the respect in practice of academic freedom and institutional autonomy are crucial for this. This often becomes undermined by authoritarian tendencies, as we have already seen for a number of years in some places in Europe and beyond. For universities to engage in societal debates, provide evidence and critical reflection they need the resources and the freedom to do this without political interference. There must be space for lateral thinking, diversity of disciplines and perspectives and for fruitful disagreement. This is needed for scientific, as well as societal progress. Any form of fundamentalism is counter to this idea, and this is why universities work best in pluralistic societies with democratic systems. Even in technocratic systems, where certain types of scientific and technical expertise would be highly regarded, universities may not flourish in the same way. They would likely be reduced to mere providers of quick fix technological solutions, favouring certain disciplines over others and underestimating the importance of open public debate encompassing diverse voices and perspectives.

Across these scenarios, there is continuous tension between universities aiming to be open and broad in their activities and political or economic pressure narrowing the scope of university activities. For example, international cooperation could be limited, with universities seen mainly as delivering skills for the labour market, and with knowledge turned into a commodity or technocratic solution. A main threat to universities realising their vision for 2030 is seeing them as institutions that fulfil only one specific purpose. This kind of one-dimensional utilitarianism cannot do justice to the many dimensions of university activities. Academic traditions and methods might not be directly applicable on the labour market, but this knowledge gives depth and critical abilities that enhance more practical skills that universities also provide. Curiosity driven research often opens up for practical innovations, even though this was not the main purpose.

An important element in all scenarios is how universities act and react. The universities of the future will be at the centre of large societal changes, as rule-shapers as well as rule-takers. Being conscious of the opportunities and threats of these changes for each individual institution, as well as its own strengths and weaknesses, will be essential to realise specific goals as well as those common to the sector.

The new EUA publication “Pathways to the future” is based on discussions from EUA leadership workshops held in the spring of 2021. It is a follow-up to EUA’s “Universities without walls – A vision for 2030” which was launched earlier this year.

This article was first published by University World Newson 22 September 2021.


Thomas Jorgensen
European University Association

Thomas Jørgensen is Director of Policy Coordination and Foresight at the European University Association.

Anna-Lena Claeys-Kulik
European University Association

Anna-Lena Claeys-Kulik is Deputy Director of Policy Coordination and Foresight at the European University Association.

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