Preparing for higher education futures
22 Dec 2004

Preparing for higher education futures

This paper projects potential futures and their

22 Dec 2004

This paper projects potential futures and their implications on the present.

Title: Preparing for higher education futures: From market-driven universities to the Technological Singularity

John Moravec
University of Minnesota

© 2004 John Moravec

(This article may be reproduced for noncommercial purposes if it is copied in its entirety, including this notice and a link to


The purpose of this paper is to generate discussion among knowledge professionals in higher education about the future. I describe four potential scenarios spread over a twenty year period (years 2009, 2014, 2019 and 2024). After exploration of the four scenarios, I visit the present and redefine and describe modern phenomena in regard to the futures explored, and offer suggestions public research universities might employ to better compete in the future. Specifically, I recommend:

  • universities need to focus on the need for human capital development that will drive innovation in society;
  • universities need to continue to seek innovative sources of
    operating capital;
  • universities need to develop products that meet the needs of
    life-long learners;
  • academic professionals need prepare for future roles as innovation
    leaders; and,
  • universities need to serve as facilitators of serious discussions
    about the future.


Based on the literature relevant to changing paradigms of knowledge formats and applications (specifically, Allee, 2003; Amidon, 2003; McElroy, 2003), I define knowledge as the purposeful use of information to meet the needs of the market. I further define innovation as the purposeful and creative application of knowledge in new contexts to drive the market. I specifically note the relation of each term to the market because knowledge-based societies and innovation-based societies primarily produce intangible assets. The intangible asset produced by universities is human capital. It is therefore important to examine how knowledge, innovation, and post-innovation societies interplay with the market and human capital production.

The future scenarios presented in this paper are my own, based on the relevant literature, my professional experiences, and reflect my own outlook for higher education over the next 20 years. It is impossible to predict the future. Therefore, please keep in mind the scenarios are not predictions, but are merely possible futures that are examined to help us better manage the present.

By the year 2009 – the “market-driven university”

By the year 2009, universities will adopt a market-driven approach toward creating knowledge. Inspired by the methodology of MBA and other professional programs, traditional disciplines will begin to emphasize practice-based learning, problem-based learning and other collaborative techniques1.

Distinctions between disciplines will begin to blur and interdisciplinary programs will begin to emerge to meet growing demands for new forms of education in a globalized market. For example, the University of Minnesota’s Comparative and International Development Education faculty could partner with the Carlson School of Management to create a graduate-level business program with international and cross-cultural components, enabling the school to compete in the field of international management with schools that have traditionally dominated the market, such as Thunderbird.

In addition, university partnerships with private industry will foster the creation of “private label” education. A corporation that desires to educate a cohort of lower and middle managers could contract with universities to create customized, private-label “Corporate U’s” that educate employees the specific skills they need to succeed in their jobs, promote company values, create intracorporation networking opportunities, and increase company loyalty. I hypothesize managers receiving advanced education specific to their job are less likely to leave their job while being trained and will become more loyal and productive employees afterward. In this scenario, the reduced cost in management turnover alone could justify the creation of such private-label partnerships with universities2.

The market-driven university will exhibit characteristics of “Mode 2” knowledge production, detailed by Gibbons et al. (1994). Universities will be driven to design and prescribe solutions for customers in the marketplace. I thus estimate government expenditures and tuition will cover approximately 33% of the cost of higher education and private industry will cover the balance.

The student body of the market-driven university will be comprised of traditional students and professionals seeking enhancement. Academic professionals will be comprised of traditional academicians, who desire to be distinguished from “lay” society, and of successful entrepreneurs, who will be sought out by universities to seek out new market opportunities. Roebuck and Brawley (1996) refer to this concept as “academic entrepreneurship. I envision the presence of successful entrepreneurs will begin to herald an age of innovation in universities

By the year 2014 – the “innovation university”

By the year 2014, the market-driven university will become organizationally more complex and diverse and begin to function as an institution of knowledge leadership: a “broker” of innovation in society. Amidon (2003) writes, “the leader manages the innovation infrastructure within which ideas are generated and applied. It is a function of listening, guiding thought, and cross-leveraging insights” (p. 207). Degrees will begin to lose importance, and university graduates will be individually valued based on how they use knowledge learned in higher education, not on the facts they acquired.

Similar to the market-driven university, curricula will be delivered a la carte, offering a high level of educational customization for students. As the market increasingly becomes saturated with life-long students, an increasing number of whom possess at least an undergraduate-level of education, communities will begin to experiment in providing undergraduate-level education for all. The expansion of the K-12 school system into a K-16 partnership with universities will reflect the modern reality that higher education is a basic necessity to be minimally competitive in the reality of a rapidly evolving market3.

Innovation is the purposeful application of knowledge. “Knowledge,” according to Amidon (2003), “is the source of new economic wealth” (p. 17). The innovation university will strategically realign itself to actualize and capitalize from this concept. Furthermore, realizing that knowledge is a public good and innovation from knowledge leads to market success, leading schools will follow the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s lead in open-sourcing knowledge (for rationale, see Vest, 2004) and release the contents of courses to the public domain. Operating on a model where knowledge is free and transformable by its users, successful universities will focus on human capital production: providing students with skill sets required to succeed through innovation.

Community educational partnerships with universities will result in an increase in funding through government expenditures4 and subsequently subsidize the cost of knowledge transfer to students. Markets will begin to demand highly-developed knowledge capital (Amidon, 2003). Seeking to benefit from increased human capital production potentials, private industry will provide specific funding to programs that produce innovation from knowledge to their benefit5.

The academic professoriate will be largely comprised of proven innovators
and market leaders. Purveyors of the “old,” elitist academic tradition will be driven out by market forces. Future academic professionals will be cultivated for their innovative, multidisciplinary expertise and character traits. Allee (2003) writes, as leaders, “we need to learn how we can better self-organize to live on that creative edge of chaos” (p. 233). A quintessential example of an innovation leader living on the edge of chaos is Richter’s (1984) fictional, multitalented “Dr. Buckaroo Banzai”: a brain surgeon, rock star, inventor, philosopher, and crime fighter.

By the year 2019 – the “sustainable, context-creating university”

In the year 2019 or sooner, “post-innovative,” context-creating universities will emerge. McElroy (2003) writes, “People don’t innovate, organizations do!” (p. 134). Communities and organizations will have mastered the creation and management of continuous innovation in society, but individuals will rely on universities for their individual human capital development and to expand their knowledge networks. Modes of knowledge delivery will be virtual and embedded into both computer and social software6.

Allee (2003) notes, in knowledge-based societies (and, by extension, innovative societies), “to be sustainable, organizations must appropriately balance order and disorder and do this in a way that is compatible with the larger environment” (p. 232). Universities will respond to the call for sustainable innovation and will become far more diverse and internationalized. Using technology to enable themselves to operate in an international context, universities will become conglomerates and expand into new markets. Functioning within broader educational knowledge networks, universities will evolve into less formal entities.

Serving an important social function, universities will be mandated to provide universal access to all students. Responding to the rising demands of the markets for life-long learning, universities will discontinue the traditional practice of issuing degrees and will offer transdisciplinary certificates. The open-sourcing of knowledge within networks will shift the role of knowledge transferor from the universities to complex knowledge systems, where a single university is among many other, diverse actors. The role of knowledge transfer – and new knowledge creation – is thus built into the social software of knowledge networks.

Elimination of the primary role of knowledge transferor from universities will not place them in danger of extinction. Universities, however, will become the focal point of new innovation production and new context-creation within knowledge system. The contextual application of knowledge among value systems will drive economic competitiveness and the transdisciplinary expertise within universities will allow it to continuously generate new contextual situations.

Amidon (2003) defines self-organization as “the spontaneous emergence of new structures and new forms of behaviors in open systems far from equilibrium, characterized by internal feedback loops” (p. 266). Functioning in a state of chaordia, universities will self-organize into systems that balance order and chaos, allowing them to continuously deconstruct and reconstruct new innovative situations.

Kurzweil (1999) predicts by 2019, the role of teaching will shift from academic professionals to intelligent software, which can provide interactive, individualized instruction at anytime to students virtually located anywhere. The composition of human academic professionals will be almost entirely comprised of proven innovators and market leaders, who provide “value-added” service to knowledge networks by creating new context for knowledge.

The sustainable, context-creating university will help usher in an age where new knowledge and technological development will occur at an accelerating pace. The pace will accelerate until advancement occurs seemingly simultaneously. Enter the Singularity.

By the year 2024 – the “Technological Singularity”

In a 1993 presentation to the VISION-21 Symposium sponsored by NASA Lewis Research Center and the Ohio Aerospace Institute, Vernor Vinge described the concept of the Technological Singularity:

“Developments that before were thought might only happen in a million years (if ever) will likely happen in the next century. […] It is a point where our old models must be discarded and a new reality rules. As we move closer to this point, it will loom vaster and vaster over human affairs till the notion becomes a commonplace. Yet when it finally happens it may still be a great surprise and a greater unknown” (Vinge, 1993).

Kurzweil (1999) postulates a Law of Accelerating Returns: “as order exponentially increases, time exponentially speeds up (that is, the time interval between salient events grows shorter as time passes)” (p. 30). Figure 1 illustrates Kurzweil’s law. Technological advances (i.e., agriculture, industrialization) are represented by s-curves. As time progresses, the rate of advancement increases, and multiple significant advancements will occur concurrently. If combined and plotted as a line, the multiple s-curves will have a hyperbolic shape. The Singularity represents the point in the combined curve where the value of the slope approaches 1-. By the year 2024, the rate of advancement will approach the Singularity.

Figure 1.

Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns

Note. Based on Kurzweil, R. (1999). The age of spiritual machines: when computers exceed human intelligence. New York: Viking.

Socioeconomic and technological change will occur so rapidly that, to an outside observer, it would be impossible to discern what changes will take place or how. Human imagination can provide us with possible scenarios for what the event horizon7 would be like, but we cannot predict what lies beyond. Smart (2001) writes:

“We are on a wild ride to an interesting destination, a local rate of computational change so fast and powerful that it must have a profound and as-yet-unclarified Universal effect. As a side effect of this hypergrowth, biological human beings will not be able to meaningfully understand the computer-driven world of the near future unless they make some kind of transition to ‘transhumanity.'”

By the time humanity reaches the event horizon, it will begin to re-engineer itself as a species. Unable to meet the demands of socioeconomic realities through the long process of natural evolution, humans will employ technology to augment – and eventually replace – our physical bodies and minds. In effect, in the 21st century, the children of the human species will be born and a period of post-human evolution will begin. This scenario is not apocalyptic, but it does predict an end to the human species as we know it. Humans who do not transition to a post-human future will find themselves unable to compete in a post-human world.

The implications for education and the role of the university in reaching the singularity are obviously huge. In the early 21st century, the university will be at the center of many of the developments in innovation and new knowledge creation toward technologies that will enable the Singularity, or will be an active member of knowledge networks that will generate such capabilities. The fate of the university within the Singularity, however, is unknown.

The irony of university-contributed development of a post-human, highly-technologically augmented future, is that future, augmented humans or their successor species might have cognitive and other intelligence properties that make the continuation of institutions of higher education for knowledge production and transfer unnecessary. For example, information and knowledge between members within a knowledge network might be shared by “downloading” information directly between minds or through other intermediary means. The university in the Singularity may cease to exist in a form that is recognizable today.

The present reconstructed

Van der Heijden writes, “scenarios are a set of reasonably plausible, but structurally different futures” (1996, p. 29). Scenarios are not used for foretelling the future, but are used as tools for enhanced perception. The creation of multiple future scenarios allows leaders to anticipate and plan for potential consequences of causality in their organizational systems.

This paper takes a similar, but inverse, approach to van der Heijden’s method of scenario planning. Rather than for as a tool to describe and plan for the future, the future scenarios in this paper help us to better define (and redefine) our perceptual realities of the present. This approach allows knowledge leaders to construct realities of the present based on causal inputs from the future.

This new perceptual orientation exposes several realities of the present state of higher education that are incompatible with future orientations. Table 1 highlights the key differences identified between the present and the predicted future in terms of mode of delivery, mode of knowledge production, mode of funding, characteristics of students, and characteristics of academia.

Table 1.

Future trends

Trait Present (year 2004) Future (year 2019)
Mode of delivery Discipline-centered Interdisciplinary, software delivery, contextually adaptive
Mode of knowledge production Action-based, scientific knowledge Innovative context creation, adaptive to chaordic systems, open-source
Mode of funding Public funding Private funding
Characteristics of students “Traditional” students and professionals Life-long learners
Characteristics of academia Intellectual oligarchy Innovators, market leaders, software

Note. Prepared by author.

The present state of higher education is discipline-centered and relies on the specific expertise of highly siloed “experts,” specialized in their individual fields of focus (Enders, 1999). Future education will become much more interdisciplinary in nature, contextually adaptive, and deliverable through social and computer software. To avoid marginalization, universities need to prepare for greater organizational complexity. Chaos and uncertainty are what are to be managed, not avoided (Bergquist, 2001).

Present knowledge production in universities is based on the positivist tradition of the creation of scientific knowledge and Mode 1 knowledge production (Gibbons et al., 1994). In the future, new knowledge production will be built on open-source models, and significantly reduce the cost of information and knowledge production. Innovation and the purposeful application of knowledge will become the driving force of future society. To prosper in an innovation-based society, universities need to focus on the need for human capital development that will drive innovation in society.

At the University of Minnesota, tuition covers 52.4% of the total cost of student education (University of Minnesota, 2004). The remaining 47.6% is mostly covered by government assistance and a minor proportion is funded by private industry8. For the purposes of this paper, I postulate this funding structure is the norm among public universities. In the future, community educational partnerships with universities will result in an increase in government support for higher education and, as the result fromfuture public-private partnerships, tuition will largely be eliminated. To retain financial security and competitiveness, universities need to continue to seek innovative sources of operating capital.

Traditional students comprise the student bodies of today’s universities. Future universities will market educational products to life-long learners. Furthermore, access to higher education will become a universal right. Student bodies will larger and more diverse. To succeed in this future reality, universities need to develop products that meet the needs of life-long learners.

Enders (1999) writes academicians today are faced with a “crisis.” Traditional oligarchic and hierarchical structures of academia and roles of the professoriate are being challenged by the emergence of outside practitioners. In the future, (industry) innovation leaders and other practitioners will begin to acquire a preeminent position in the composition of the professoriate. Academic professionals need prepare for future roles as innovation leaders.

The onset of the Singularity has the potential to become the greatest achievement the human species (and successor species) will accomplish. A new era of spontaneous new knowledge and innovation production will be born, radically changing the nature of ourselves and our world. Though the Singularity might occur 20 years in the future, our culture and educational system are not “Singularity aware.” Discussion of the Singularity, its benefits, consequences and how we will achieve it is noticeably absent in modern society. It is rarely explored in popular culture and is absent from K-12 curricula. Higher education rarely educates about the future of knowledge and innovation production. To fill this crucial gap in knowledge leadership, universities need to serve as facilitators of serious discussions about the future.


Allee, V. (2003). The future of knowledge: increasing prosperity through value networks. Amsterdam ; Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Amidon, D. M. (2003). The innovation superhighway : harnessing intellectual capital for sustainable collaborative advantage. Amsterdam ; Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Bergquist, W. (2001). Postmodern thought in a nutshell: Where art and science come together. In J. M. Shafritz & J. S. Ott (Eds.), Classics of organization theory (5th ed., pp. 477-489). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Branham, L. (2001). Keeping the people who keep you in business : 24 ways to hang on to your most valuable talent. New York: AMACOM.

Enders, J. (1999). Crisis? What crisis? The academic professions in the “knowledge” society. Higher Education, 38(1), 71-81.

Gibbons, M., Lomoges, C., Nowotny, H., Schwartzman, S., Scott, P., & Trow, M. (1994). The new production of knowledge: the dynamics of science and research in contemporary societies. London: Sage.

Kurzweil, R. (1999). The age of spiritual machines: when computers exceed human intelligence. New York: Viking.

McElroy, M. W. (2003). The new knowledge management: Complexity, learning, and sustainable innovation. Burlington, MA: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Richter, W. D. (Writer) (1984). The adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the 8th dimension. USA: 20th Century Fox.

Roebuck, D. B., & Brawley, D. E. (1996). Forging links between the academic and business communities. Journal of Education for Business, 71, 125-128.

Smart, J. (2001). What is the singularity? Retrieved April 25, 2004, from

The Education Trust. (2001). Thinking K-16, from

Torp, L., & Sage, S. (2002). Problems as possibilities: problem-based learning for K-16 education (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

University of Minnesota. (2004). Onestop: tuition and fees information. Retrieved May 6, 2004, from

Van der Heijden, K. A. (1996). Scenarios: the art of strategic conversation. Chichester, England New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Vest, C. M. (2004). Why MIT decided to give away all its course materials via the Internet. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 50(21), B20-21.

Vinge, V. (1993). The technological singularity. Retrieved April 25, 2004, from

1. More information on problem-based learning is available in Torp, L., & Sage, S. (2002). Problems as possibilities: problem-based learning for K-16 education (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

2. According to research by Branham (2001), companies are likely to spend up to 200% of a position’s salary amount to recruit and fill abandoned professional positions.

3. A discussion on K-12 partnerships may be accessed online: The Education Trust. (2001). Thinking K-16, from

4. In the strategy outlined by the Education Trust (2001), support for K-16 education will be provided by local communities.

5. This is an extension of the “private label” universities described in the previous scenario.

6. I define social software as comprising of the formal and informal structures, processes and knowledge artifacts (Allee, 2003) that community-derived knowledge networks and sustainable innovation communities employ to share and build knowledge among members. Electronic social software provides support for social and knowledge networks. Modern examples of such software can include email, Internet relay chat, Web logs, and massively multiplayer online role-playing games.

7. The terms singularity and event horizon are borrowed from astrophysical terms used to describe black holes. The “surface” of a black hole is termed the event horizon, a point where gravity of a black hole becomes so immense that no information is observable from beyond it. The center of a black hole is a singularity, a point where matter is gravitationally crushed to infinite density and space-time becomes infinitely curved. For the purpose of this paper, the Singularity metaphorically refers to a point in history where innovation and technological advancement will occur at a very rapid pace.

8. The University of Minnesota’s actual economic model is far more complex than presented in this paper. This simplified model is intended for illustrative purposes only.

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