Where are the universities of the future?

Traditional centres of power in global education might be on the wane - so where will the universities of the future be?

The world of higher education is currently experiencing vast, swift growth. In 1970, there were just 27 million people in higher education around the globe: but by 2025, there could be as many as 262 million students in universities and HE institutions worldwide.

This naturally leads to the question: where will these students go? At the current rate of growth, two universities would need to be built every day for the next twenty years, just to meet the demand of current projections. This represents a huge opportunity for universities, as they prepare to expand into new markets and take advantage of advances in education technology to capture new markets.

But it’s also a significant challenge. At the top end of the sector, elite universities will have to compete to attract the top students and academic talent. As the global economy grows and the jobs market continues to focus on emerging areas and new, often hybrid roles, students will look to university to set them on the right path for their work life post-graduation.

New research has shown that European universities may be falling behind in the race to be ranked at the top of their fields – particularly when it comes to Physical Sciences, Engineering and Economics, all of which are closely interlinked with the skills that experts believe will be needed for the jobs of the future. Analysis, led by Andrea Bonaccorsi, professor of economics and management at the University of Pisa, has found that comparatively few universities in mainland Europe have “excellent” research, THE reported this week. France and Italy have two universities each with excellent research, and Germany and Spain have none.

Excellence in research might not immediately seem to affect student choices, but over time, a university’s research capabilities filter through to make a difference to reputation at every level. Continental European universities with a small number of fields of excellence will attract fewer researchers and academic, which will affect the quality of post-graduate options and teaching. A university whose teaching is seen to be sub-par will struggle to compete for top students in the competitive higher education ecosystem of the future.

However, both the UK and the Netherlands broke with the European trend. Each country had eight universities with research that the report deemed excellent; and across the US, there are 49 universities that meet the criteria. What’s more, several of those universities had excellent research rankings in more than two areas, demonstrating a wide range of expertise.

The separation between US/UK universities and European institutions is not the only potential source of strife when it comes to getting top students. According to University World News, China is stepping up policy designed to attract more international students, and to encourage those students to stay and work in China after graduation, as well as continuing to focus on attracting Chinese students who have gone to study abroad to come home, in an attempt to reverse the brain drain of the last two decades.

Policy that is set at government level is very effective in helping to get more students into the workforce in China, since it has led relaxed rules on residency and visas, enabling students to find work more easily. Universities in China such as Peking University and Tsinghua University are global pacesetters for innovation and development, making them very appealing to the top tier of globally-minded students.

However, the report on the potential damage to European universities concluded on a more optimistic note. The spread of excellence across higher education in Europe involves many more universities in the process of developing research, rather than the concentration in a small group that is seen in the US. And while international geopolitics continue to affect the way that students look at their future – including potentially putting off applicants to the US while the political situation remains volatile – striving for excellence will remain the best way for institutions to ensure they are the universities of the future.

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