The Far Future
Occasionally, I get asked about why higher education will look like in forty or fifty years. I usually beg off this kind of thing because predictions over that length of time aren’t very meaningful. I mean, will AI have an effect? Of course it will. Can I predict what it is? Of course not. Don’t be ridiculous.
And yet. There are a couple of important things that we can say, with little fear of contradiction, about the future environment in which post-secondary education will be delivered. The first is that it is all going to happen on a planet which is significantly hotter than the one we currently inhabit. This will cause some changes for a couple of institutions – for instance, the Marine Institute in Newfoundland is going to need a new place to dock their research vessels and Royal Roads might need to move to less soggy territory. But more generally, cities are going to need to be renovated and rebuilt for climate mitigation purposes. There’s a lot of “smart construction” in our future.
Compounding this issue will be a significant increase in immigration. Canada is already a pretty attractive destination. But in a much hotter world, with a billion or more potential migrants as temperatures make several parts of the world largely inhabitable, the number of people interested in moving here is going to skyrocket. At current rates of growth, we are looking at having 80 million Canadians before 2075. This isn’t going to just mean the densification of cities like Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Edmonton (Calgary is a little trickier as it’s on the edge a climatic zone that might not do too well): it’s almost certainly going to mean massive expansion of smaller cities within commuting distance of those centres. It’s not just building that will intensify: transport systems will need to become much better and more widely networked, food logistics systems will need to change…there are a lot of really important changes to think about here.
Now take all that in and ask yourself: how many universities and colleges is this country going to need in, say, 2070?
I’m not asking about what method of instruction these institutions are going to be using: that, I think, is pretty much unknowable. Or even what they are going to be teaching: my guess would be that many students will be studying in disciplines that are only as yet dimly understood. What I think we can say for certain is that given the need to adapt to both climate change and massive population growth, several fields are in obvious long-term ascendancy. Construction and transportation engineers, construction trades, city planning, advanced food production, and logistics are all going to be in high demand through the next couple of decades, as are health and kinesiology.
But regardless of the distribution of fields: how are we going to handle a student population roughly twice the size it currently is?
The fashionable answer is that we’re going to do more through online/remote education. And I suppose to some extent that is true – I’m pretty sure that over the next couple of years, we will see a lot more students learning in blended mode – like taking three courses in person and two online (preferably asynchronously) because it’s just a lot more convenient. But while that attendance pattern may mean less wear-and-tear on physical structures in existing universities, and less need for classroom space, it’s not clear that it’s going to result in a halving of the burden. It’s also doubtful that a Canada with 80 million people will have the same geographic distribution of population. And unless you think people aren’t going to want physical campuses at all, then we’re going to need to make sure we are putting up some new universities and colleges in some cities.
We shouldn’t worry too much about the cost here: if we do the immigration thing right and don’t totally mess up the productivity thing (I am more confident of the former than the latter, because Canadians seemingly can’t get enough of producer cartels), then all these new Canadians should be generating enough income to provide public funding at something like the level we currently commit. What we should be concerned about instead is what kind of institutions we want to build.
And this is an exciting prospect! New institutions are blank canvases; they allow for real experimentation in organizational form and style. And if you can design and execute a new form of higher education, you can partially move the needle inside existing institutions as well. One famous example was the development of land-grant universities in the United States after the Civil War, which aimed to make new “useful” universities to supersede the old elitist model of East Coast Liberal Arts schools. Later, mainly through imitation, they became the dominant mode of American higher education.
New institutions – built with serious public money and commitment – are really the only way to shake the higher education system out of its comfort zone (BC had an opportunity to do something like that with BC Tech twenty-odd years ago, but it panicked and ran in the face of early trouble and the campus ended up as part of SFU instead). We should approach an opportunity like this with some excitement: how could we shake things up?
Maybe we could ask some foreign universities to come in and co-locate with an existing university, the way Israel’s Technion university created a campus in New York with Cornell (I think it would be cool to bring the National University of Singapore into, say, Calgary). Maybe we could create Canadian versions of Western Governors’ University or the Minerva Project, both of which have very different approaches to assessment than do our existing institutions. Maybe we could build anyone of the fantastic institutions that University of Nottingham Registrar Paul Greatrix has been featuring on his excellent podcast, My Imaginary University (if you’re looking for my fantasy university, I was in episode 9 and advocated for a university where degree programs were largely divorced from academic disciplines). Maybe we could get a community college that lacks its own campus but is embedded at dozens of industrial locations in a given region. Maybe we get a genuinely national Indigenous university.
The point is: over the next forty years – less in Alberta and British Columbia – we are going to need to start thinking hard about opening universities. In doing so, we have an opportunity to create new models of post-secondary education that will not only provide choice, but also to create new norms that have the potential to shake the status quo at existing institutions. This is too good an opportunity to waste.