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What Does the Future of Higher Education Look Like?

What Does the Future of Higher Education Look Like? main image

The end of the decade has people speculating about what the universities of the future will look like. One of these people is the Former Minister for Universities and Science in the UK, David Willetts, whose talk ‘The Future of Universities’ at the QS Reimagine Education conference, captured the interest of those in attendance.

In his talk he discussed where universities are right now, where we want them to be, and the challenges they are likely to be facing in the (not too distant) future. 

Conventional image of universities

Christ Church, Oxford

What do you think of when you picture a university? For Willetts, this is “a college at Oxford, around 500 years old, and a [center of] powerful education and excellence”, such as Christ Church, Oxford University (pictured above), where he attended as an undergrad. 

It’s hardly surprising the ‘Oxbridge’ model of a university has become the default image in the UK and elsewhere because, for many years, Oxford and Cambridge were the sole two universities in the UK.

Willetts explained how differently education has grown in England compared to other advanced Western European countries: “In the Middle Ages, we started creating universities across Europe in Spain and Italy, but in England we have only two: Oxford and Cambridge,” he said.

“Then, through the succeeding century, other European countries kept on creating universities, so that, by the age of Napoleon, most European countries had a university in every major city, recruiting people from their region.

“In England, uniquely, Oxford and Cambridge use their duopoly to surpass the creation of other universities. So, England had no more universities in 1800 than they had in 1200,” added Willetts.

“You then have two different higher education models. You have the European model where you go to your local university, and you have an English model, where you travel to secure admission at one of the only two universities in England: Oxford and Cambridge. They remain a dominant model of what universities can be like.”

Although today, we have a much higher range of universities and types of higher education institutions in the UK, Willetts said, “the model of prestige is still associated with Oxford.”

The age of education sceptics

Although participation across the western world “averages at around 50 percent” Willetts said: “you can only integrate 50 percent of young people in higher education if you have a diversity of university and a diversity of admissions”.

In his talk at the Reimagine Education conference, Willetts discussed how the current university system is likely to miss out certain individuals who think there are “no returns on going to university” and view it as “pointless”.

Willetts said: “There is a particular issue for men who are unlikely, not only to go to university, but unlikely to get any kind of useful education or training. Even if they miss out first time around, they stay out. So, in terms of reimagining education, something that incorporates these people in education after they are disengaged at the age of 16 is crucial”.

How should we pay for education?

How should we pay for higher education?

The debate of whether students should or should not pay for their education is one that has caused controversy in the recent UK 2019 general election.

“These are the protests that faced me when I was the Universities Minister when I introduced the £9,000 fee,” said Willetts, referring to the increase in tuition fees which was introduced in 2012.

“Students do not pay these upfront, but in a graduate repayment scheme” he explained.

“I think it’s justified by the simple fact that, on average, graduates earn more than non-graduates.

“Expecting graduates to pay back their higher education, rather than the generosity of taxpayers seems to be supported by the labor market – it is by far the most powerful route into a profession in the UK and in other advanced western countries. So, asking these professionals in well-paid jobs to pay for the cost of their education seems to be fairly progressive.”

Willetts’ enthusiasm was not shared by everyone however, with one Labour MP describing the fee increase in 2012 as a “tragedy for a whole generation of young people”.

The challenges faced by universities

The two main challenges faced by universities in the future are the challenge of globalization and of the digital revolution, which Willetts said are “relatively underdeveloped in higher education” as universities have not had to engage as much with these two challenges.

We will now take a closer look at these challenges, and how they will affect higher education.


Studying abroad is becoming more popular as students enjoy learning new languages and about new cultures, and having the chance to make friends internationally. Currently more than half of higher education students are in Asia, said Willetts.

“Many of them are educated domestically but there are still surprisingly few who are travelling abroad. However, China is by far the world’s biggest exporter of students, with India second and Germany third.”

There are, however, several problems that arise with higher education becoming increasingly more globalized.

When it comes to Brexit, Willetts, a self-proclaimed “shameless Remainer”, said: “I think it would be reasonable as a small step towards open trade to say we will fund our students through the learning system if they study in your country”

He added that the future of higher education will mean, “the non tariff barriers to trade that historically protected higher education systems from globalization will gradually be removed.”



Flickr: Levanrami

The picture above, Henry of Germany delivering a lecture to university students in Bologna by Laurentius de Voltolina not only captures the image of globalization (with a German lecturer teaching at an Italian university) but also, Willetts said, “still captures a lot of the educational experience of a lot of students”.

He said, therefore, that the big question “over the next few decades [is], is the digital revolution finally going to displace this model?”

It’s also worth questioning the future of online learning, and to what extent this will replace conventional lecture-based learning. “My view is that for many young students, [lecture-based learning is] still going to be the experience they want. I think they will still wish to go to the campus, but clearly there is an opportunity for a massive expansion of online courses as well,” said Willetts.

Willetts added that the digital revolution may cut out the ‘middleman’, replacing the traditional university degree “with various online courses that will have the various secure systems for assessing your performance and displaying how far you’ve got on your online course” adding that “you will put it straight onto your LinkedIn profile”.

This would be particularly useful for older learners, Willetts argued, as it will allow you to “boost your qualifications online while working.”


Specialization at an early age is a problem in higher education that is not widely acknowledged. By the age of 16, only seven percent of students in the UK have decided to study physics and mathematics at A-level (or equivalent.)

This means that to become a professional engineer in the future, by the age of 16, we’re already down to only seven percent of the population of students. Willetts said to solve this problem, we need to “broaden education for the generalist”.

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Written by Chloe Lane
A Content Writer for TopUniversities.com, Chloe has a bachelor’s degree in Economics from the University of Reading and grew up in Leicestershire, UK. 

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