This post is the first of a series of five on higher education futures. It’s based on the presentation I made to the Tertiary Education Management Conference in Melbourne in October, 2010, which I’ve embedded at the end of this post. What will our higher education institutions and the work they do ‘look’ like in the future?  The world changes quickly, in ways that we can’t really imagine today, and our strategy must be designed to be futures ready – to be ready for many possible futures. So, what can we do today to shape that future and be ready for it?

To think in a meaningful way about the future of higher education, though, we must first activate our foresight capacity. Unless we activate that capacity, all our planning about the future will be based on what we know about the past and the present, which is well…dangerous, given the amount of change we see and feel all around us.In our societies and organisations today, we tend to work within existing paradigms and tweak them to make them better and more efficient.  Think quality improvement and benchmarking. If the future is going to be nothing like today, then the current paradigm won’t be good enough.  We need to start building a new paradigm today, one that takes the uncertainty of the future, and uses it to understand what our options are.

There are no future facts however, and so in our data driven organisations today, seemingly obsessed with benchmarking, quantitative analysis and data driven decision making at the expense of all else, the future is not worth spending time on because we can’t quantify it. Particularly since all we have are images and ideas about the future, underpinned by our assumptions about how we think the world works now, and will work into the future. And images aren’t real, are they? Images we hold about the future don’t shape our actions today, do they?

The first step in coming to understand four trends shaping the future of higher education, is to challenge your assumptions about what’s possible and how you think your organisation will operate into the future. It  won’t be business as usual and it won’t look anything like today. We need to surface and share our images of the future to start a strategic conversation about what is possible, and what is unlikely.

Spending time today exploring the shape and form of the future is important if we want to avoid looking like this – when all our best laid plans based on today’s paradigm fall apart when they collide with the future.

There are many possible futures for higher education but no one can predict the future, except by luck.  No one. But we can understand the shape of possible futures, and this activity – thinking about alternative futures – needs to be a pre-requisite for strategy development – right now!

There are many drivers of change out there affecting the future higher education, and you are all living the impact of these every day in your work:

  • globalisation,
  • demographics,
  • technology,
  • the need to green,
  • knowledge economy,
  • consumer trends, and
  • work.

We’ll explore four major trends emerging from these drivers in the next posts:

customising & personalising technology that enables
openness and collaboration ways of working

In the meantime, you can view the entire presentation now, and I’d welcome your feedback about this important topic for anyone working in higher education today, so comment away!


View more presentations from Maree Conway.