UK: Higher education in 2050

UK/ 06 August 2020/ Source/

By Duc Pham

Duc Pham, chance professor of engineering, Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Birmingham

What will higher education (HE) look like thirty years from now? Recently, in a rare idle moment, I tried to envision the UK’s HE landscape in 2050. What I am about to share with you is my personal vision, based partly on observing trends in HE, technology and society. Before you read on, beware that some of the material might not be suitable for those with a faint heart or an even weaker imagination!

In 2050, at least 90 percent of the student population will be pursuing online degree programmes. Education will be truly democratised and globalised, with students unhindered by age, social, geographical or national boundaries. Powered by superfast quantum computing and communication networks, virtual reality and augmented reality technologies will be so refined that they will enable online learners to have the same experience as their on-campus counterparts.

After the bankruptcies and mergers of the 2020s and 2030s, there will be fewer HE institutions. Due to decreasing demand for courses delivered in the old-fashioned face-to-face mode, for which tuition fees will have spiralled to £50,000 (US$65,055) per annum in today’s money, and the massive switch to online learning, the number of on-campus students will decrease. The number of teachers will drop even faster. Overall student-staff ratios of 100:1 will be the norm.

The majority of university staff will be administrators, such as marketing, admissions, planning, human resources, finance, legal and IT professionals. Most academic departments will employ just a handful of people, mainly to develop and maintain online modules and occasionally to deliver face-to-face lectures, seminars and tutorials with a human touch. The majority of staff, however, will be robots with super intelligence.

Teacher robots will prepare courses, give lectures, answer questions, set and mark assignments, and provide timely and insightful feedback. They will also detect plagiarism in students’ work and differentiate between assignments completed by them from those by some clever apps. There may also be research robots that can help develop research proposals, conduct investigations and produce articles for dissemination.

Robots will have the capacity to work tirelessly but will require no payment, and will therefore be championed by increasingly money-conscious vice-chancellors. They would almost completely displace people, if it were not for the need to provide a minimal degree of human interaction in order not to flunk national student surveys.

With fewer students pursuing courses delivered face-to-face and fewer staff employed, fewer people will use the campus. Those that do will have to pay for the privilege—students through high tuition fees and staff through various levies. For example, staff will have to rent a desk if they want one. The reason for that space charge is purely pecuniary rather than being connected with space shortage.

In fact, there will be no requirement for all the space and buildings created during the expansion in HE of the mid- and late 20th century. Many halls of residence, laboratories, lecture halls and office blocks will be converted into apartments and hotels. Campus sizes will shrink back to the pre-expansion period in accordance with the theory of inventive problem solving (TRIZ) trend of evolution: ‘Transition from macro to micro level’.

Shocked? Yet this vision is far from a dystopian fantasy. Indeed, many of its elements exist today. For example, massive open online courses (MOOCs) have been around since 20061. In the summer of 2018, Arizona State University (ASU) launched an online general biology degree course in partnership with Google and Labster, the latter being a company specialising in designing virtual science laboratories2. Students are already paying university fees not far off £50,000 per annum at some elite US institutions. Robots capable of reasoning and debating with people, and potentially acting as professors, were discussed in this column not so long ago3.

However, let me end on a more optimistic note. As with most developments, we can drive change in HE in a positive direction through foresight, smart thinking and hard work. Great academic institutions have been able to do it and, as a result, have passed the test of time. There is every reason to believe that UK HE will thrive in 2050 if it adopts a long-term view, starts setting progressive trends and becomes an agent, instead of a victim, of change.


1Massive open online course (2019). Wikipedia. Available at:

2Faller, M.B. (2018). Students navigate custom lab content by ASU and Labster with VR headsets [press release]. August 23. Arizona State University (ASU). Available at:

3Pham, D. (2018). I, Probot. CMM, volume 11, issue 4. Available at:


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