Trends Transforming the Futures of the University (2000)

By Sohail Inayatullah

This article is based on speeches presented to the Professoriate at Tamkang University, Taiwan and at the 4TH Pacific Rim First Year in Higher Education Conference, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia, 6 July 2000


Trends of changing student expectations (access to global systems of knowledge, including transparency and international accreditation), the internet (virtual education, moving from campus center to person centered, and far more customized, individually tailored), global corporatization (reduced state funding for universities and the development of a market culture on campuses) and transformed content (multicultural education) will dramatically influence all the world’s universities. In the next ten years there will be windows of opportunities to transform and be ahead of the curve. However, after that the window will close and there will be clear winners and losers. Indeed the potential for dramatic transformation is so great that in 10 years, it is far from certain that universities as currently constituted – campus based, nation-funded, and local student-oriented – will exist.


Corporatization will create far more competition than traditional universities have been prepared for. Corporatization is the entrance of huge multinational players into the educational market. All understand that education is the big growth area. Total spending in education in America was 800$ billion US, estimates The Economist. By 2003, the private capital invested in the US will total 10 billion dollars, just for the virtual higher education market and 11 billion dollars in the private sector serving the corporate market. Indeed, John Chambers, CEO of Cisco systems, calls “online education the killer application of the internet.” Jeanne Meister, president of Corporate University Xchange(CUX), expects that by 2010 there will be more corporate universities in the United States than traditional ones. They are and will continue to challenge the academy’s monopolization of accreditation. These corporations have a huge capitalization base and with globalization they have the legitimacy to cross national boundaries and with the internet the vehicle to do so. Pearson, for example, a large British media group that owns 50% of the Economist, is betting its future on it, hoping that it can provide the online material for the annual two million people that will be seeking a degree online.

The money is in education. Generally as academics we are not used to this type of language. For us, it has been about scholarship, the pursuit of truth, about science. I know at one meeting, when a colleague asked about the level of scholarship in one program, the Dean said they had no money for scholarships. He had already forgotten what the university was about as he was always under so much financial pressure.

Now if someone down to the street, some vendor who sells bread wants to take over the university, there is no threat. But when billion dollar corporations want to enter the market – a rapidly growing market, especially with the aging of the population and with national barriers to education slowly breaking down – the challenge to the traditional university becomes dramatic. With an expanding market of hundreds of millions of learners, money will follow future money. Money will transform education.

This corporatization of the university – Academic Capitalism – differs quite dramatically from the classical university, which was concerned about moral education. Moreover, as in Bologna in the 10th century, it was student-run. If the professor was late, he was fined by students, some teachers were even forced to leave the city.

University Dimensions

The point is that at one time the university was student-run, we know that it is no longer so, if anything it is administration-run. Who will run it in the future? To understand this we need to explore the different dimensions of the University. The University is partly about social control, and it is also about baby-sitting. What to do with teenagers? How to keep them out of trouble? The other dimension is national development. We have schools to convince everyone that we’re a good people, that we have the best system. Each nation engages in social control, it uses education to give legitimacy to the nation-state, to make good patriots. We also have university for job training, the entire practical education moment. – the small community colleges, where the goal is to go to a small college to get practical education so that one can get a real job after graduation.

Thus the classical (Confucian and Greek) view of knowledge for the cultivation of the mind has been supplanted by the industrial model. And, as you might expect the big growth in jobs in the university are in the area of the bureaucracy. Whereas tenure is being eliminated in favor of part-time employment throughout the world, the university administration just keeps on expanding.

Now I know some of you are happy, the administrators, as you believe these positions are justified since reporting, accounting requirements keep on increasing, student numbers keep on going up, so of course, there should be more administrators.

But if you are not an administrator and are a faculty member you are wondering where is the money going to?. I know students everywhere are asking that. In one meeting we had on globalization and the university, one professor commented that the “the most important thing in globalization is reducing labor costs.” Someone else asked: and where are the biggest labor costs? The biggest labor cost is in the administration. If you really want a globalized university, first cut the deans. Of course, this is the most difficult position to cut since deans generally decide which positions go and which stay. Faculty planning seminars are essentially about implementing university plans, and not about creating new visions of education.

But the key question will be: what can be automated? Who can be replaced by the internet and web education? Perhaps both – faculty and the administration – will be in trouble. This is the debate: too many administrators or too many professors. A third perspective is – a market perspective – not enough students and thus each university believes it must globalize and have students from all over the world attend their physical campus as well as take courses from their virtual campuses. However, generally, most universities still think about students in narrow ways. As young people or as students from one’s own nation. But with the ageing population and with the internet (with bandwith likely to keep on increasing), one’s paying students can be from anywhere.

When I think of a student, I think of someone as 50, even 70 years old. The idea of 18 years old student is no longer an accurate representation. The biggest democratic shaft in human history is now occurring. We are moving from the medium age of OECD countries being 20 to 40. It’s dramatic shift.

Now the other classical view of university was academic-led – a shared culture focused on scholarship and science – but that too is been challenged. And of course the .com model even challenges what the university should look like. Should it be physical-based or virtual? Should it be based on a model of hierarchy or a networked model?

But for academics, the biggest challenge is the university as a corporation. And we know in the U.S. that Corporate funding for the University has increased from 850 million in 1985 to 4.25 billion US$ less than a decade later. In the last twenty years it has increased by eight times.

So the big money is coming from the corporation and money from the government is gradually being reduced years as per the dictates of the globalization model. While most presidents of the university would prefer a different model, they have no choice. More and more education is becoming an economic good. Humanity departments are being downsized throughout the world since the contribution to jobs is not direct. Unfortunately, they forget the indirect contribution, that of creating smart, multi-lingual, multi-cultural individuals – what some call social capital.

However, there are some quite insidious affects of corporatization. First, information is no longer open, as corporations use it for profit making. A survey of 210 life-science companies in 1994 found that 58% of those sponsoring academic research required delays of more than six months before publication. The content of science itself changes as the funding increased. In a 1996 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, 98% of papers based on industry-sponsored research reflected favorably on the drugs being examined as compared with 79% based on research not funded by the industry. Now what accounts for that 19% variation? And how will the public then see the university? As with the medical system, once patients believe that doctors are beholden to certain drug companies or web sites they are less likely to trust them. This holds true for university research as well.

But there is another side to globalization. In 1989 in the U.S. there were 364 new start up companies on the basis of a license to an academic invention. University technology transfer activities generated 34 billion dollars in U.S.$ supporting 280,000 jobs.

So the university is becoming more global and also producing incredible wealth, so there are two sides to globalization.

Virtualization: the .com revolution

The .com revolution as well has mixed reviews. A quick example. Over night, one Australian university administration changed the prefix for academic emails from to .com. So over night your email changed from being Professor to Chen@com. The academics asked why did this occur. While some were upset that this happened without consultation, others were upset that the moral basis of the university was being transformed, they were deeply troubled by corporatization. The administration responded that we can no longer compete globally as an institution and instead had to become a .com. Eventually the university went back to as the pressure from academics was too great.

But the university administration could see the writing on the wall. The traditional model of the classical liberal arts national subsidized university was ending – a new model was emerging. The mistake they made was not engaging in dialogue with others, not living the .com network model but instead using the power-based secrecy model of the industrial era.

The other problem that administrations have not yet begun to see is that much of middle-management can and is likely to be eliminated. The emerging knowedge economy – via the net and future artificial intelligence systems – will lead to dis-intermediation. With a good information system, you don’t need all the secretaries, the clerks, as well as those higher up the ladder. Of course, the politics of job firing, retraining, is a different matter and central to how the future university and overall world economy is to be organized in the future.

Now the other impact of the .com revolution is that it creates the portable revolution. With colleagues, we produced a cdrom on Futures Studies which in effect is a portable university. One can get an MA through the cdrom, it has courses on it, stories of all the authors and it opens up to the web serving as a knowledge navigator for the field of futures studies. So when people ask me where I teach, I say, I just carry my university with me. Through the cdrom, you enter a new pedagogical world. You can, for example, e-mail all the authors and editors. Now remember when you were in college and if you wanted to ask questions of a textbook chapter, to e-mail a great scientist, a great social scientist, could you do that? With this type of technology you can ask authors questions of their text, seek further explanations. The text can become communicative instead of merely information.

Of course, one can put all this information on the web as well, however, bandwith while increasing is slow in many universities.

So the nature of what constitutes education is dramatically changing from being text focused to being customer student focused. From being campus focused to being virtual. The university than becomes a process, it is no longer simply a place, with fixed 9-5 work patterns, with fixed schedules for classes. It can become a network.

Multicultural Realities

The model of how think about what is taught – not just how it is taught, and the structure around education – is also changing. And this is the important trend of multiculturalism.

In its tokenistic form, multiculturalism became a government fad of the last decade in postindustrial societies, its most controversial feature being its excesses of ‘political correctness’. In its deeper nature it is

about inclusiveness. At heart, argues Ashis Nandy, multiculturalism is about dissent, about contesting the categories of knowledge that modernity has given us. And, even with multiculturalism often criticized and coopted, used strategically to ensure representation, still the future is likely to me more and more about an ethics of inclusion instead of a politics of exclusion. Of course, the struggle will be long and hard, and more often than not, instead of new curriculum, there will be just more special departments of the Other.

Deep multiculturalism challenges what is taught, how it is taught, the knowledge categories used to teach, and the way departments enclose the other. It provides a worldview in which to create new models of learning and new universities which better capture the many ways students know the world. As futures researcher Paul Wildman reminds us, this can extend to concepts such as multiversities and even ‘subversities’ which encourage participation from scholars and students who dwell at the periphery of

knowledge. In this form, multiculturalism goes beyond merely inclusion of ‘other’ ethnicities, to a questioning of the whole paradigm of western scientific rationalism on which centuries of university traditions are founded. In this perspective, multiple ways of knowing include spiritual or consciousness models of self, in which as James Grant for the Mahrishi University of Mangement and Marcus Bussey of The Ananda Marga Gurukul University assert, the main driver in transforming universities of the next century is an explosion of inner enlightenment, a new age of higher consciousness about to begin.

Multiculturalism ends the view that there is only one science. Western science instead of being seen as a quest for truth is considered to be one way of knowing among many. There are can alternative sciences – feminist science, Tantric science, Islamic science. They are still engaged in empirical and verifiable research but the questions asked, the ethical framework are different. Generally, the type of research is more concerned with indigenous problems, with local concerns. It is less violent to nature, toward “subjects” and more concerned with integrated self and other, mind and body, intellect and intuition.

What’s happening through out universities is that scholars are contesting the content of scholarship – how, for example, history is taught, asking are all civilizations included, or are only Western thinkers, Western notions of discovery and culture honored.

I give a lecture at an Australian university and questioned how they were teaching their main course on World History. I noted that the grand thinkers from Islamic, Sinic and Indian civilizations were not included. Why? And when other civilizations were briefly mentioned they were written as threats to the West or as barbarians. Women and nature as well were absent. I argued that this creates a view of history that is not only inaccurate but violent since other cultures see themselves through these hegemonic eyes. Instead of creating an inclusive history of humanity’s struggle, a history of one particular civilization becomes valorized.

While it is unlikely that the professor who teaches this course will change, students have changed. They want multiple global perspectives. They understand that they need to learn about other cultures from those cultures’ perspectives.

The multicultural challenge to the traditional university can be defined as below:

  • Challenge to western canon
  • Challenge to intellect as the only way of knowing
  • Challenge to divorce of academic from body and spirit – challenge to egghead vision of self/other
  • Challenge to modernist classification of knowledge
  • Challenge to traditional science (feminist, islamic, postnormal, indian)
  • Challenges pedagogy, curriculum as well as evaluation – ie process or culture, content and evaluation or what is counted.

We are already seeing the rise of multiculturalism in OECD nations. For example, at one conference in Boston, when participants were asked to list the five American authors they believed most necessary for a quality education, they placed Toni Morrison second and Maya Angelou third. Others on the top ten, included Maclom X and James Baldwin. The first was Mark Twain.

The multicultural perspective challenges as well the foundation of knowledge. Multicultural education is about creating structures and processes that allow for the expression of the many civilizations, communities and individuals that we are.

Multicultural education contests the value neutrality of current institutions such as the library. For example, merely including texts from other civilizations does not constitute a multi-cultural library. Ensuring that the contents of texts are not ethnocentric is an important step but this does not begin to problematize the definitional categories used in conventional libraries. For example, in the multicultural perspective, we need to ask what a library would look like if it used the knowledge paradigms of other civilizations? How would knowledge be rearranged? What would the library floors look like? In Hawaiian culture, for example, there might be floors for the Gods, for the aina and genealogy. In Tantra, empirical science would exist alongside intuitional science. Floor and shelve space would privilege the superconscious and unconscious layers of reality instead of only focusing on empirical levels of the real. In Islam, since knowledge is considered tawhidic (based on the unity of God), philosophy, science and religion would no longer occupy the discrete spaces they currently do. Of course, the spatiality of “floors” must also be deconstructed. Information systems from other civilizations might not privilege book-knowledge, focusing instead on story-telling and dreamtime as well as wisdom received from elders/ancestors (as in Australian Aboriginal) and perhaps even “angels” (either metaphorically or ontologically).

A multi-cultural library might look like the world wide web but include other alternative ways of knowing and being. Most certainly knowledge from different civilizations in this alternative vision of the “library” would not be relegated to a minor site or constituted as an exotic field of inquiry such as Asian, Ethnic or Feminist studies, as are the practices of current libraries. The homogeneity of the library as an organizing information system must be reconstructed if we are to begin to develop the conceptual framework of multi-cultural education.

Thus, not only is the structure of the University changing, that is, virtualization, but the content as well is being transformed. Now what does this mean? If you want your university to have a bright future, you have to understand the changing nature of the student – changing demographics (older, more females) and changing expectations (more multicultural). Generally, while getting a job will always be important, the equation has changed to planet, profits and people, that is, a strong concern for the environment, for making money and for engaging with others and other cultures.

Democratizing the Feudal Mind

The role of academics is changing as well. This is the generally the hardest notion for senior professors to swallow – the democratization of the university. We want democracy for government, but we don’t want democracy for universities .

The university remains feudal. For example, while the economy in East Asian nations has transformed, that is, feudalism was destroyed, the feudal mind has not changed. This is the grand question for East Asian nations. How to create a culture of innovation, how to go to the next level of economic development, instead of copying, creating. To create an innovative learning organization, you can’t have a culture of fear. This means real democracy in details like what type of seating is in the room. As well as: can students challenge professors? Can junior professors challenge senior academics without fear of reprisal. Innovation comes from questioning.

In British systems, the university structure is as well profoundly feudal. A strong distinction is made between the professor and the lecturer. Indeed, the professor is high on top the pyramid with others way below (and the president of the university residing on the mountain top).

Thus can we democratize the university? Of course, it is difficult to do this. No one likes being challenged. We all have our view of reality, our favorite models, and we believe we are correct. But creating a learning organization means challenging basic structures and finding new ways to create knowledge and wealth. It doesn’t mean always going to the President for solutions. Transforming the feudal university is very difficult.

However, I am not discounting the importance of respect for leadership, for discipline and hardwork – challenging authority doesn’t mean being rude, it means contesting the foundations for how we go about creating a good society.

So far I’ve touched upon four trends: corporatization, virtualization, multiculturalism and democratization as well as basic missions of the University. Given these trends and missions, what are the possibilities for the university, what are the possible structures?

Possible Structures

I see three possible structures. One is being a University leader, joining the world’s elite, Harvard, Stanford, Oxford. The focus then is: “We are only going to get the best bright students around the world.” But the challenge to this model comes from the .com world. The big money is unlikely to be in teaching but in content design. The issue is though once you put your name on cdroms, on internet content, does that diminish your brand name, its exclusivity. If everyone can enter an elite university’s web course, is the university still elite? This is the issue of franchising. Should you focus on a small customer base that can pay a lot or become like the University of Pheonix (the largest university in the USA, offers no tenure, uses short courses as well as flexible delivery. A kind of just-in-time education).

For large universities, there are two clear choices – elite university or low cost producers with hundreds of millions of new students all over the world as potential purchasers. A third choice for the smaller university is the niche university –focused in a particular area of excellence. Not trying to be too much, just focused on one particular area (regional concerns, for example).

The question for the traditional university is new competition from global players: multi-media corporations, elite universities that are expanding and branding as well as low-cost producers.

These issues are already of concern in the USA, and soon they will be crucial here as well. It is harder to see this in East Asian nations (and those colonized by England) since the State plays such a strong role in education. But eventually in five or ten years the competition will come here as well. All universities will find themselves in a global market.

Scenarios for the Future

The next question is what are the probable scenarios for the future of the university. We use scenarios to reduce uncertainty. Scenarios are also important in that they also help us rethink the present – they give us a distance from today.

Earlier futures studies focused entirely on single point prediction. The field then moved to scenario planning, to alternative futures. But now, it is moving to capacity development, with creating learning organizations where foresight is a continuous part of what the organization does.

Studies that examine corporations that have survived over a hundred years found that the one key factor in explaining longevity was the capacity to tolerate ideas from the margin. For universities this is crucial – the capacity to tolerate dissent, indeed, to nurture different ideas, new ideas from the edge.

In terms of scenarios, the first one is the Star Alliance model. I use this term from the airlines – where the passenger is always taken care of – there is easy movement from one airline to the other. Everything is smooth. For the university, this would mean easy movement of student credits, faculty and programs. A student could take one semester at Stanford, and a second semester in Tamkang, and a third semester at Singapore National University. Professors could also change every semester. So it means a similar web of movement, that’s one big possibility. Star alliance works because customers are happy. The airlines are happy because they get brand loyalty. The student might say “I know if I join this university, my credits are transferable. I could access the best professor, I could access the best knowledge in the world.

The second scenario is what I call, Virtual Touch. This vision of the future of the university combines the best of face-to-face pedagogy (human warmth, mentoring) with virtual pedagogy (instant, anywhere in the world, at your own time and speed). If it is just technology then you get bored students, staring at a distant professor. But if it is just face-to-face you don’t get enough information. The universities who can combine both will do very well.   Ultimately that will mean wearable wireless computers. We already know that in Japan they use the wireless phone to dial up a website and find the out the latest movie, or weather or stock quote.

In 10 years, it is going to be the wearable computer, so we’re going to have a computer with us all the time. I can find out everything, I can find out the minerals in water for example, testing to see if it is clean or not. And that technology is almost developed now. I can find out where was my microphone was made. Was it made in China, in Taiwan, in the U.K. I just dial up and I can get product information. And this information will be linked to my values, what type of world I want to see. Thus, I’ll purchase products that are environmentally friendly, where the corporation treats women well. And students will see university courses in the same way: is it well taught, what is the professor like, how much democracy is in the class, what are the values of the University?

The third scenario is: A university without all walls. It’s means the entire world becomes a university . As Majid Tehranian writes: “If all goes well, the entire human society will become a university without walls and national boundaries.” We don’t need specific universities anymore since the university is everywhere, a true knowledge economy wherein humans constantly learn and use their knowledge to create processes that create a better fairer, richer, happier world.

The Future of the Profession

Let me now return to the future of the academic. What is our role in this dramatically changing world. The first possibility is the traditional professor – this is the agent of authority, great in one field but knowing very little about other fields. They may know Physics but not complexity theory. They are useful in that they are brilliant in one area but not so useful since they have a hard time adapting to change.

The second role is the professor as web content designer. While the current age-cohort is unlikely to engage in these activities, younger people will. Even my six year old wants to be a cdrom designer when he grows up. Other young people as well see knowledge as quite different than we do. They see knowledge as quick, as interactive, as multi-disciplinary and as always changing. They want to be web designers and information designers. So the old role of academics was to write books, the new role is that of creating new types of interactive content. And the content will likely be far more global, multicultural than we have so far seen. It appears to be an entirely different world being created.

That also means, if you’re the web designer, you’re student becomes key. This means using action learning methods. Action learning means that the content of the course is developed with the student. While the professor may have certain authoritative knowledge, his or her role is more of a mentor, the knowledge navigator to help the student develop his or her potential within his or her categories of what is important.

You might say this is impossible in Asian nations and former British colonies. But many years ago we had a one week course in Thailand. The subject was the futures of economic development. The first four days, we had heavy lectures, but on the 5th day, my colleague from Queensland University of Tony Stevenson said to the students “you design the course.” For the first half-hour, the students looked down. But after twenty minutes they started talking and eventually designed the next few days.

My sense is that this is good news for academics. Most of the professors I speak with would prefer less teaching – information passing out – and more communication. The mentoring role is far more rewarding, personal. The old school was the long lecture. The new way of thinking is just tell the student to go the web and find out. Afterwards there can be a discussion. The Professor then has to learn how to listen to students’ needs and not just to lecture to them.

What is unique about our era is that we now have the technology to do this. Do we have the political will, the wisdom?

Dissenting Futures

Let me close this speech with the issue of dissent. What makes the role of the academic unique is that he or she can challenge authority. When the system becomes too capitalistic, this can be questioned. If it is too religious, this too can be countered. All the excesses of the system can be challenged. And who can do this? Those who work for the government can’t since they fear losing their jobs. Those belonging in the church, temple or mosque can’t since they are ideologically bound. And this is the problem with globalization, by making efficiency the only criteria, moral space is lost. As academics we should never, I believe, lose sight of our responsibility to create new futures, to inspire students, to ask what-if questions, to think the unthinkable, to go outside current parameters of knowledge. This is our responsibility to current and future generations.


Selected References

Eyal Press and Jennifer Washburn, The Kept University in The Atlantic Monthly (March 2000), 39-54.

Glazer, Nathan. We are all Multiculturalists Now. Harvard, Harvard University Press, 1997.

Inayatullah, Sohail and Jennifer Gidley, eds. The University in Transformation: Global Perspectives on the Futures of the University. Westport, Ct., Bergin and Garvey, 2000.

Inayatullah, S. “The Multicultural Challenge to the Future of Knowledge.” Periodica Islamica, 1996, 6(1), 35–40.

Staff, “Online Education: Lessons of a virtual timetable,” The Economist (February 17, 2001), 71-75.

Tehranian, M. “The End of the University.” Information Society, 1996, 12(4), 444–446.

Wildman, P. “From the Monophonic University to Polyphonic Multiversities.” Futures, 1998, 30(7), 625–635.

Wiseman, L. “The University President: Academic Leadership in an Era of Fund Raising and Legislative Affairs.” In R. Sims and S. Sims (eds.), Managing Institutions of Higher Education into the Twenty-First Century. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1991.