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The Dark, Challenging and Fun Future

Bryan Alexander's new book, Academia Next, attempts to predict the future of higher education. We asked him a few questions about what's in store.

January 20, 2020
 

Bryan Alexander is a researcher, writer and frequent commentator on higher education. He is also -- as he reminds readers of his new book -- a futurist, meaning he examines trends to predict future outcomes. In Academia Next: The Futures of Higher Education, Alexander describes a few potential scenarios for the higher ed landscape in coming decades. Alexander is currently a senior scholar at Georgetown University.

He responded via email to questions about his book.

Q: Who is your book for and what do you hope it will achieve? Is it your goal to help colleges and universities survive into the future? If so, why?

A: I wrote Academia Next for everyone thinking about higher education’s future. That includes students, faculty, staff, alumni and trustees, along with directly interested parties: parents of younger students, and state legislators, along with academically involved foundations, nonprofits, relevant government agencies and businesses.

My goal is to help readers think more creatively and effectively about the future of higher education, aiding them as they plan for and make the next generation of colleges and universities.

I hope futures thinking can help institutions survive, because at its best, the academy represents an extraordinary combination of learning, discovery, inspiration, knowledge accumulation, personal transformation and social service. I fear that the futures I derive tend to forecast a very challenging time ahead for these amazing institutions -- which is ironic, because in contrast the future looks very bright for learning.

Q: What is your approach to predicting the future? What does the process entail?

A: I don’t offer a single prediction. Instead, I explore multiple futures which higher education might inhabit.

Methodologically, in this book I focus on two approaches. The first chapters are a form of trends analysis, which looks to the present day and very recent history for signs of forces likely to change higher education in the future. They consider a broad range of trends, from enrollment patterns to demographics and macroeconomic forces to emerging technologies. Each of those trends is backed up by research, showing how they played out so far in the real world. Assembling that research entailed a nearly decade-long process of continuous environmental scanning, examining a wide and diverse range of sources for what Amy Webb calls “signals” of the future, and published regularly through the "Future Trends in Education and Technology" report. Chapter six (“Connecting the Dots”) then directly extrapolates those trends into the short- and medium-term future, creating a first-order forecast.

Next, the second part of the book uses another approach by generating scenarios, or seven possible forms for higher education. Each is based on one or two trends identified in the first part of Academia Next.

Trends analysis has the advantage of being grounded in material evidence. Scenarios are powerful because they are narratives, allowing us to easily imagine ourselves in their possible worlds. Both give us insight into the futures of academia.

Both of these methods are improved by the help of many people, often through social media. First, I use social media as one source for horizon scanning. Second, readers ping me to share stories they found fascinating. Third, I share stories and thoughts with many different people, including through social media, seeking feedback, improving my thinking and enhancing the results. Over all this is a very collaborative and social process -- and you can see more about this in the book’s acknowledgments.

Q: Some of the scenarios you present in the book describe a challenging future for American higher education. Which of these scenarios do you most fear or are you least excited about?

A: "Peak Higher Education" (chapter seven) is the darkest one. It posits a higher education sector that is smaller than it is now -- or was when I first published the idea here in Inside Higher Ed in 2014. Total student enrollment declines for a variety of reasons (demographics, geopolitics, low unemployment, student debt anxieties), leading to a shrinkage in campus budgets and an acceleration in the number of institutional closures and mergers. Competition heats up, and inter-campus collaboration becomes even more difficult than it once was. The 20th-century American idea that the more college and university experience people have, the better, begins to give way.

My slightly tongue in cheek “Retro Campus” (chapter 13) rejects the digital world almost entirely, and I fear that such an institutional design would lose the many benefits offered by modern technology.

Q: One of your chapters is on the “Augmented Campus,” where augmented reality is mainstream and everyone on campus is constantly viewing virtual content on their eyewear. What trends might drive this development?

A: The rise of augmented and virtual reality technologies, then their combination in what some call mixed or extended reality. Mobile devices and speedy internet connections allow for the intertwining of the digital and physical worlds. The creativity we normally demonstrate when faced with new technologies then drives new interfaces, content, experiences, expectations and storytelling.

Q: I noticed that you dedicated your book to adjuncts, who, as you write, “do more than anyone, with less than anyone, to build the future of higher education.” What does the future look like for adjuncts and why is the book dedicated to them?

A: I am very glad you caught that dedication. Right now, it looks like adjuncts will continue to represent the preponderance of the American professoriate. They do so now, and there is very little in the way of countervailing trends. Adjunct unions are a good step forward, but the forces driving adjunctification -- research universities overproducing Ph.D.s, campuses facing fierce pressures to keep costs low -- seem likely to persist.

Academia Next is dedicated to adjuncts because they are in many ways a humanitarian disaster that higher education has created. Their labor powerfully shapes the emerging future of the academy, usually without the recognition of others, and I wanted to draw the reader’s attention to their work and situation.

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