Western University campus, Ontario
Western University, Ontario

I want to ask the question: are our current institutional models – universities, polytechnics, colleges – fit for purpose in the 21st century, or do we need innovation in the form of institutions that are differently designed, organised, managed and financed? Or are our existing institutions flexible enough to accommodate the changing demands of the 21st century?

Although online learning and distance education are part of the melting pot, they are just one component of the question. Would online or digital learning serve a better purpose in a different kind of HE institution to the ones we have now?

The current context

At least in most economically advanced countries, there are three main kinds of higher education institutions: universities, polytechnics and colleges. During the 1970s and 1980s there was a surge in the creation of new types of institutions, such as open universities, some of which are still not only surviving but prospering. In some countries, such as the USA and the UK, the balance between privately and publicly funded HE institutions has changed considerably, as well as the sources of funding, for instance, international student tuition fees. In some countries, such as Canada, polytechnics have taken an increasing important role in HE.

However, the types of institution have remained remarkably consistent for the last 30 years. Indeed, it could be argued that universities in particular have changed little in structure and organization since the middle of the 19th century.

The changing demands of the 21st century

There have been profound changes in technology, science, culture, and society over the last 20 years, raising issues and concerns that either did not exist before, or were of considerably less importance. Just a few examples are listed below:

1.Technology growth and hegemony

Technology, especially digital technologies, have not only become increasingly important in our lives, but have also raised all kinds of new concerns. In particular, key technologies have become concentrated into and controlled by a very few commercial organizations. There are major concerns about privacy, the use of personal data by third parties for commercial gain, increased differences between rich and poor resulting from control of key technologies, the increase in misleading and fake information, and the potential for dehumanising work and leisure through artificial intelligence. These issues require not only a good understanding of how technology works, but also a need for government policies and social input. In other words, a multi-disciplinary approach is essential for the orderly management and control of technology so that it benefits rather than exploits mankind.

2. The environment and climate change.

Mankind is in an increasingly desperate race to manage and mitigate the impact of human activity on the environment and climate. It is a race that mankind is currently losing. Nothing is more urgent for higher education than to find immediate solutions to greenhouse gas emissions, mitigation of climate change, and policies and strategies for rescuing and protecting the environment. Such efforts need science, policies, and implementation. Such efforts also need to include education of the general public, business, and politicians on the issues and possible solutions. Once again, a multi-disciplinary approach is essential.

3. Poverty, mental health, addiction and homelessness

This is another ‘wicked’ problem: complex, with many interdependent factors, requiring deep understanding of the stakeholders involved. It requires medical, economic, social, political and administrative inputs – another multi-disciplinary area requiring research, policy and education.

4. Financial challenges

 In the 21st century, in most economically advanced countries, government financial support for higher education institutions has either been stagnant or slowly eroding.

In some countries, such as Australia and Canada, HE institutions have become dependent on high fees from international students; in the USA elite universities depend heavily on endowments and charitable giving. Several universities in Canada are facing severe financial difficulties. Without international student tuition fees, they would not be viable.

Dependency on international fees is not only risky – politics can stop such activity overnight – but also raises ethical and social issues. Should more economically advanced countries be draining emerging economies of their best talent? What are the implications for housing and accommodation when large numbers of international students descend on small or median sized communities? Are there not more equitable ways to support the development of students in other countries, such as exchange programs? When international students make up more than 50 per cent of student enrolments, is this an institution focused on serving the local community and its students?

At the same time, the population in Canada is growing at around 750,000 per year, mainly due to immigration. As a result, the demand for HE, especially for lifelong learning and updating and upgrading qualifications from already partly qualified immigrants, is likely to increase, but it will not necessarily be driven by high school leavers. What is the best way to finance not only existing but also increasing demand in the future?

One way is to look at new financial models for HE institutions, such as public-private-partnerships that can help address some of the other changing demands of the 21st century, for instance, a partnership between an HE institution, a business sector and governments addressing climate change. In other words, instead of – or as well as – general funding, an institution would look for specific funding for specific initiatives, including research as well as educating and training people to work in that sector. This would mean though a fluctuating and less stable work-force within the institution, as it responds to changing demands.

5. Educational delivery

This is another significant and under-appreciated change impacting higher education in the 21st century. The method of delivering education is undergoing profound change. Students can now study, and instructors can now teach, at any time and from anywhere. Could we not build a new kind of institution that fully exploits the strengths and avoids the weaknesses of such changes? Would it be more practical to build new institutions around the flexibility of online delivery combined with the advantages of hands-on study, rather than convert existing institutions to accommodate hybrid and online learning?

Are not existing institutions adapting to such changes?

The question then becomes: are all these 21st century challenges so profound that they need new kinds of HE institution, or are existing institutions flexible enough to accommodate these and other 21st century challenges?

Certainly, many institutions in Canada have multi-disciplinary programs or initiatives, such as the Integrated Science undergraduate program at McMaster, and Toronto Metropolitan University’s Digital Innovation Hubs. Nottingham University in the UK has just started a multi-disciplinary Bachelor/Masters in Cancer Sciences.

However, Nottingham’s experience is a good example of the challenges conventional institutions face in providing cross-disciplinary programs. It had to get agreement from 12 different departments across the university, and is struggling to fill all the teaching places as the departments try to protect their own interests in single discipline programs. Nevertheless, the Bachelor of Cancer Sciences program is already full with top quality candidates, with a waiting list for places.

What kind of institution?

It is not being suggested that conventional institutions should cease to exist and be replaced completely with new institutions, but there should be some room for experiment. Just a few completely new institutions designed specifically to meet 21st century problems can provide useful lessons and guidelines for how conventional institutions could change. Because higher education is a provincial responsibility in Canada, it needs just one or two provinces to experiment. For instance, Ontario, Québec and BC are big enough with expanding population numbers to try out at least one new institution each.

The pitch would be to identify key ‘wicked’ problems on which a new institution would focus. The focus on wicked problems would open the door for Federal as well as provincial funding, as the Feds could then target the money – perhaps five-year funding for specific problems that are at least partly a Federal responsibility (such as climate change, for instance). At the same time, Canadian corporations or business associations could be approached to support research and development on specific wicked problems, as well as financially assisting the education of students who would become experts in the topic and then find work with sponsoring businesses.

Since most wicked problems are international in scope, this could be another focus – international collaboration with student exchange.

This would also be an opportunity to rethink delivery of education. Many people already in the workforce can bring interests, knowledge and expertise to these topics, both as instructors or as students. Some form of distributed institution then is likely to work best, combining a mix of in-person and online learning. This would provide an opportunity to re-think the campus and its role, its design, and its technology platform.

Leadership in establishing new institutions though would still come from the provincial government, as higher education is their responsibility in Canada.

I am deliberately being open and somewhat vague about what such institutions should look like as form should follow function. The focus should be on how best to approach wicked problems then design the institution around that.

However, I believe we do need to re-think ways in which to provide higher education so that it can specifically address the many ‘wicked problems’ that we face in the 21st century. 

Over to you

I would really welcome your views on this. Am I being too critical of existing institutions? Could they or are they not already doing all these things? Or are the challenges so great that we do need to re-think what HE institutions should be? And if so, do my suggestions make any sense or are they too impractical? Please use the comment box at the end of this blog to express your views and comments.


  1. In the Distributed University https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-981-16-6506-6 the central campus remains but is much smaller as most education happens online in virtual or regional hubs. Carbon emissions are much reduced, education reflects the way that people gain information and utilises the possibilities offered by modern technology and learning methods. Local and global inequalities in access to higher education are reduced.

  2. Dear Tony,

    thanks for your inspiring thoughts.

    In Austria we recently try to establish a new kind of university: The Institute of Digital Studies in Austria (IDSA in short).
    Its aim is to cover all aspects (or rather a considerable range) of digitalisation. Students from outside the country will be very welcome but will probably be a large part or even the majority of the whole student number. Thus the benefit for the region (Upper Austria) may be (at least a bit) questionable as long as most of these students will proceed to other (or their home) countries – after finishing their studies.
    Studies within IDSA shall begin this autumn already. The birth of this institution was/still is quite difficult because other regional stakeholders, esp. other tech universities, watch the emergence of this new institution with considerable distrust. And some of these stakeholders came on board of the founding IDSA-board … Financing, by the way, mostly comes from the federal and regional government
    As the saying goes: Better is the enemy of good. But how do the good ones (often more in numbers) react?

    Best, Josef Reif (from Austria)

    • Many thanks, Josef, for bringing my attention to IDSA. It sounds like a very interesting initiative, and I wish you/it every success. I will follow its progress with interest.


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