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University 2060: the brave new world of higher education

Higher education, 2060: academics are out of a job. All the brand name universities have made all their courses free online, easily doing away with one side of the teaching and learning equation. Pretty…

The future of higher education doesn’t look so bright. Higher education image from

Higher education, 2060: academics are out of a job. All the brand name universities have made all their courses free online, easily doing away with one side of the teaching and learning equation.

Pretty soon all the universities realised how much money they could save.

Tutorials have been replaced by Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) with the wisdom of the crowd sourcing all answers from the students themselves. Algorithms update the online course content in response to the question’s popularity - after all, “the customer is always right”.

Eventually no new information is taught, as it is too difficult to produce. There can be no FAQs for new material. So university courses have become useless. People need to find other ways to learn.

Universities took up the idea of the customer is always right earlier than 2012. Students became clients. So it became obvious that student evaluation of teaching results determined careers and promotion of lecturers.

That is, even when the students could not possibly be in a position to evaluate the teaching, as they were yet to be introduced to, grapple with and eventually understand, difficult and complex issues.

And yet they were asked by administrators to rate their teachers. Students assumed that because the material was hard, the teaching must be poor. So the complaints went: it should have been easier to engage with; the lecturer did not spend enough time explaining how to get a good mark; they did not answer my questions quickly enough (even if most were posed late at night, and answered by morning).

So the universities felt justified in getting rid of their lecturers: after all the student feedback was not good and the lecturers were difficult to deal with.

The Australian Research Council realised that they too could save themselves a great deal of time. All they had to do was run competitions. They only needed small groups of trusted researchers who met regularly to determine which questions would get funding and how much each question was worth.

Then as each new question was decided it was added to the competition database. This procedure had a great deal of merit. It assumed that the best researcher to answer any particular question was out there somewhere but asking them to apply for funding was a waste of everybody’s time.

Much better for the ARC to put up the questions, sit back and wait for the research teams to engage with the questions directly. No need to fund a good looking prospect. They only needed to fund results.

They took the website as their model. Big questions (that is the ones that could earn the most money) attracted the biggest prizes.

At this point educational research stopped being funded completely, because everyone now knew how to educate en masse for free. Get a free degree from MIT, Stanford or Harvard. Within ten years software was developed that was sophisticated enough to be used to examine PhD theses, so no one had to actually read them any more.

Within 30 years, all the “great minds” currently living had gained their doctorate from an algorithm. No one had read their work, and none could find a job in the academy, because everyone had free degrees from MIT, Stanford or Harvard.

About 10 years later a group of about 12 people sat around together in a room. They had decided to hold a book group. There was no leader except that one person had rediscovered the old practice of a reading group and suggested to some friends that they try it out as a nostalgic reenactment, similar to the people who still recreated the American Civil War on a Sunday afternoon.

One of the group suggested the book, something they had found in a bookshop from the 1960s, On Becoming a Person by Carl Rogers.

They all enjoyed meeting together and talking about the book, particularly the funny ideas that could never take off now. Then someone suggested they read another book.

This happened and they all enjoyed that experience too, sharing and discussing ideas with no particular agenda. After the group had discussed five books they realised it was not just the book that was enjoyable, they brought food, talked about their days, discussed other topics unrelated to the books they had come together to read.

They were enjoying engaging with each other and learning together.

Pity, they thought, that we couldn’t do this more often.

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12 Comments sorted by

  1. Cat Mack

    logged in via Facebook

    Hear Hear!! There has always been a serious confusion in this country between education and training. Universities are seen by policy makers as "training" institutions - training for the economy. So, it follows that you don't actually need social interaction - you only need systems to train the monkeys.

  2. Pat Moore


    "Free" market, "rational" economic, thinktanked & corporately corrupted,, for being led out into the brave new anthropocentric world of imperial global plutocratic corporate capitalism? Conforming to public funding-starved, then privatized requirerments. All part of the business of human farming husbandry (bah bah, chatter, chatter) & to engage successfully & lucratively in rabid planetary assault or to accurately & scientifically measure & record…

    Read more
  3. Dania Ng

    Retired factory worker

    Love it! Wonderful piece, thank you very much.

  4. Yoron Hamber


    A sweetly written futuristic dystopia:) I hope the Australian educational system still works though? You're right in that some courses may crave more than others, and you're even more right in that there must be a competence for teaching them. Somehow that always seems to be forgotten in times of national momentary needs, at what time anyone willing seems to be able to become a 'teacher' ,no formal knowledge demanded. But it's also so that a good teacher that likes his subject, and students, should be able to find ways to guide them.

    1. Yoron Hamber


      In reply to Yoron Hamber

      Eh, I will blame my spell checker for that one, 'monetary', not 'momentary', or the keyboard :) As long as it is not me.. ahem.

  5. Massimo Bini

    Tertiary Education Consultant at Vision Australia

    This is not sci-fi but rather sound reflection on where we are now. and it is probably nearer than 47 years away.

    I would add another step: privatisation of all levels of education. As privatisation swept through secondary schools and then adult education it was inevitable that the Government would turn on the tertiary sector - " As students are paying for their education anyway, who cares how much they end up paying and let someone else take the blame for poor education and employment outcomes." This soon lead to the vast majority of students studying law and business (and going on to do so at postgraduate level) but still the vast majority could not get suitable jobs and had large student loans that they had no way of paying back.

  6. Nick Kenny


    Classic. I went to university to expand my mind, share ideas, interact with like-minded - and plenty of unlike-minded - people. The physical forum of debate and discussion, the atmosphere of collectively enhancing our ability in "how" to think, rather than "what" to think, spurred on by an encouraging and invocative teacher, cannot ever be replaced.

    Unless we are in the Matrix.

  7. Cameron Nichol

    eLearning Manager

    I fall into the Mike Caulfield camp

    What we have to stop asking is “Why will this work?”.
    What we have to start asking is “Why will this work this time around?”

    The long held belief around edtech has been that you would have to be a pretty poor teacher to be worried about a computer taking your job - if you think a computer can replace you then it probably can.
    Decent teachers know this isn't true.

    Unfortunately, the near self destructive bias toward reseach in Australian Universities has meant that we have recruited more than few academics who could be largely (and effectively) replaced a technolgical solution.

  8. Christopher White

    PhD candidate

    PLEASE!!! Don't give the politicians any ideas!! There's an election looming and this could well end up as the Education policy of both the major parties!

  9. Gavin Moodie
    Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Adjunct professor at RMIT University

    Riley's piece on universities in 2060 perpetuates easy whinges which are plain wrong. To consider one among many, his criticism of student evaluation of teaching ignores what students are actually asked and what they rate, which is evident from a quick review of the course experience questionnaire. It also ignores the research which finds, for example, that students do not rate lowly subjects that are difficult or that are marked hard.

  10. Dr. Brendan Moloney

    logged in via LinkedIn

    I love the article. I especially like the re-hashing of the 1960s vision of education - everyone turning up on a suburban campus to read Albert Camus and 'protest'. This kind of propaganda is finally being dismantled, isn't it?

    Let's get real. The world is changing, the hankering for the good old days with cricket on the transistor are long gone.

    While critics lament the decline of universities, they miss the point. Universities, as they currently stand, are an institution built by (and continue to serve) individuals from the 1960s-1970s (yes, before I was born).

    Our new models of education are being built by a new generation of academics, intellectuals, and entrepreneurs, and yes, these institutions are unlikely to serve and to support the status of yesteryear's academia - not matter how vitriolic their resistance is.

    Viva la revolution!