A risky future for Europe’s universities

future of higher education, higher education
© Sarinya Pinngam

European University Association President, Michael Murphy, and Senior Policy Coordinator Thomas Jorgensen, discuss the changing future of higher education across Europe

European universities need to stand their ground as autonomous and engaged institutions – and this might become tougher in the near future. Pressure on universities comes from authoritarian tendencies within Europe and beyond, as well as the Janus head of digitalisation and commercialisation of higher education.

A recent report by the European University Association (EUA) looks at scenarios for the future and how they might impact universities in Europe. The background for this report is the vision for universities for the next decade, “Universities without walls”, published by EUA earlier this year. The new report attempts to foresee how major trends in society will affect universities’ ambitions to be open and engaged in society, while being autonomous and guided by their own values. Concretely, three big trends form the basis of the exercise: geopolitics, digital transformation (mainly artificial intelligence and its effect on labour markets) and the course of democracy.


Regarding geopolitics, the big story is the different possible constellations of the U.S., China and the EU. In a world that is increasingly divided between rival blocks, how can universities avoid the risk of being pushed to align with ‘likeminded countries’ and continue to work with a wide range of global partners? Today, evidence shows that universities work with many different global partners. In a world of growing geopolitical tension, they would have to practice classical, sometimes discreet, science diplomacy, while arguing explicitly for an open world of knowledge. In all the constellations European universities will participate in the global competition for talent, where they will benefit from Europe being more attractive than other world regions.

Digital transformation

The possible effects on universities of artificial intelligence and automatisation in general could be beneficial in the sense that the need for upskilling and reskilling in society gives them a central role in the digital transformation. However, this should not reduce universities to be mere providers for the labour market; it is important that they insist on the many aspects and values of a university education that are not connected to the professional success of graduates.

Another important feature of the digital transformation is the interplay between universities and big technology companies. As education becomes digitised, it will produce more data, which will, in turn, potentially be of value to education providers of all types, for example online learning platforms. There is a risk that education will become uniform and predictable, following norms defined by algorithms rather than students’ curiosity and serendipity. Moreover, there is a potential for further commercialisation of higher education, aimed at maximising the profits of providers rather than the curiosity and critical thinking of learners.


The course of democracy is crucial to the future of universities. Modern, outward-looking universities need to have academic freedom, as well as the freedom to use their knowledge in and with society. The EUA report looks at how technocracy, authoritarianism and participatory democracy might affect their relations with the rest of society.

While authoritarianism is clearly highly problematic in its curbing of academic freedom and institutional autonomy, an expert-led technocracy with high regard for knowledge would not be a context in which universities could thrive as open and engaged institutions. Here, they would risk being elitist parts of the inner circles of society, providing technical and rational solutions to those in power. In a more participatory, bottom-up democracy, universities would have both academic freedom and the ability to engage with society at large, but they would need to become even more open and socially aware to play the role of equal partner in a non-hierarchical setting.

Utilitarianism and one-dimensional views of universities are common threats in all these scenarios. Whether it is aligning with geopolitical blocks according to political decisions taken in foreign ministries or being reduced to skills-providers for the work force, universities are institutions with values and priorities of their own. They certainly can promote international cooperation in a responsible way, and they will beyond any doubt play a key role in re-skilling and upskilling. However, they can do much more than that: they can build bridges across borders where big politics fail, and they can open doors to the traditions of knowledge and deep reflection well beyond mere skills provision. Likewise, universities work well when they engage freely in democratic societies, not as subjects to political power, nor as providers of technical solutions. Instead, they contribute through their values of respect for evidence, critical thinking and methodological rigour.

In sum, universities must stand their ground and affirm their many, complex roles across their missions in research, education, innovation and culture. In addition, they must insist on their intrinsic value as places of respite and reflection, as places of knowledge for society – for individuals, the community and knowledge itself.

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European University Association
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Senior Policy Coordinator
European University Association


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