What is the future for international university cooperation if relations between the West and China deteriorate and essentially lead to another Cold War? What do universities do if artificial intelligence renders even high-skilled jobs obsolete? And how would a university adapt if a previously stable democratic country suddenly descended into authoritarianism?
Such scenarios may either seem remote or on the verge of happening, depending on your point of view. But how universities might deal with them forms part of a new report from the European University Association that looks at potential directions the world could take in three key areas: geopolitics, technology and national democracy.
Thomas Jørgensen, co-author of the Pathways to the Future report and senior policy coordinator at the EUA, said that although universities were currently preoccupied with the practicalities of emerging from the Covid crisis, the world was still at a “pivotal moment” politically and technologically.
And even without the extreme upheaval of the pandemic, the events of the past 10 years had shown how vital it was for university leaders to think the unthinkable about what they may face in a decade’s time.
“Ten years ago, Brexit would have been seen as a ridiculous option. But it’s reality and you have to think unlikely things might happen,” he said.
In terms of geopolitics, the report – which followed an EUA leadership workshop that debated the scenarios earlier this year – imagines three broad developments: one where the world solidifies into three main competing power blocs: the US, European Union and China; another where transatlantic ties between the US and Europe are re-established to fend off an emboldened China; and a third where the world returns to multilateralism and a rules-based international order.
Although the third option would seem to be the easiest for universities to negotiate, those at the workshop “identified the most closed scenario…as the one where Europe would have the biggest advantage in attracting students and researchers”. This was because Europe could brand itself as the “sustainable superpower” – in between a more marketised US and authoritarian China – while the more open scenario could mean “competition would potentially move towards rivalry between global clusters and alliances of universities”.
However, even if geopolitical rivalries do harden, Dr Jørgensen said he hoped universities would still seek ties with institutions across the world, irrespective of local politics.
“Universities want to stay globally open; they would not want to bed down in one of these camps and say ‘OK, well we only work with like-minded countries.’ Actually, there are good to reasons to work with non-like-minded countries and keep those bridges,” he said.
The change, that was already happening, might be universities having more “formal risk awareness and risk assessment” of such ties, he said.
But what if some of these concerns about partnering with academics in more restrictive countries arrive much closer to home? In one of the more extreme scenarios envisaged in the report, universities find themselves in a situation where authoritarian powers have taken over government and “control political and state institutions, media and universities, and they limit fundamental rights”.
As the document points out, such a scenario is already not a million miles from the present-day struggles in some countries, even within the European Union, referring to how the Central European University was forced to relocate its main operations from Budapest to Vienna after pressure from Hungary’s government.
Maia Chankseliani, who is currently leading a Centre for Global Higher Education project on how universities work across borders, said her own research had also highlighted how authoritarianism in countries such as Russia and Belarus affected international cooperation.
In Belarus for instance, “there are a number of European and other international funding opportunities that Belarusian academics can tap into”.
“Yet, foreign funding is seen as potentially leading to political persecution. Academics have to justify to the government why their projects are funded by international funders as the government is suspicious of any international engagement,” said the associate professor of comparative and international education at the University of Oxford.
However, even if authoritarianism still seems a distant risk for universities in Western democracies, more benign changes could still present a challenge, the report warns.
In a scenario described in the document as “technocrats take over”, democracy is increasingly bypassed by decision-making being outsourced to expert committees, often including scientists themselves.
Although this may be positive for universities in some respects, because academics are seen “important problem-solvers”, they could ultimately find that the “level of institutional autonomy and academic freedom for the individual is likely to be limited” as the mission of higher education narrows.
Similar risks also appear in the third area for change discussed in the document, the digital revolution.
The scenarios painted here include policy challenges that higher education is currently grappling with, such as how to reskill people in a world where automation is replacing jobs at a rapid rate and how best to facilitate lifelong learning.
The dangers here, explained Dr Jørgensen, were that through competition with private firms, universities could be pushed further down a road where they are seen merely for their utility in educating people for work.
“There is nothing wrong with equipping learners with skills. I think the threat is if you go for excessive marketisation,” he said.
He added that in continental Europe “nobody has really wanted to go down that road yet but that might come from private providers saying, ‘Actually there is an increasing way to monetise education and make it into a commodity.’”
Overall, the report concludes that a common thread running through the scenarios is that there is “a constant risk that universities, rather than being autonomous actors, become instrumentalised for other purposes and aims, politically or economically”.
“The trends towards authoritarianism, marketisation and increasing global tensions all point to a context that narrows the playing field for universities. At the same time, it pushes them to be more explicit about their values, and to counter these trends by broadening and opening up,” the report says.