Key challenges for the AHEAD study

What will higher education look like in 2030?

The NMC Horizon Report 2017 defines two ‘wicked problems’ for the future of higher education, which are “complex to even define, much less address”. These are:

  • Managing Knowledge Obsolescence
  • Rethinking the Roles of Educators

Knowledge is important to enable people to understand and reflect on connections between objects, between physical and between social phenomena; to gain insights into them for understanding and perhaps in order to change them. The economist might want to change them for greater economic impact, the engineer for more efficient and new technical processes, the medical doctor or nurse for greater health and the social scientist to improve societal processes of participation and fairness. The  educator’s task is to facilitate these processes through supporting knowledge and skills acquisition – didactics is about activating such acquisition. This challenge is not really changing at all, but it is becoming more important that more people in society become active and continual learners, constantly reflecting on what they know and can do, but also on the value and the sustainability of what they know and can do.

Dissolving boundary between being ‘in’ and ‘out’ of higher education?

Even with the advent of distance and online modes of learning, higher education is broadly shaped by two limitations: (1) the difference between being ‘in’ and being ‘out’ of a higher education institution, i.e. mainstream higher education erects high administrative hurdles to entering a full learning programme (e.g. enrolling for a full programme of study, calling for standard entry qualifications, and only recognising learning ‘in’ higher education, not non-formal or informal learning); (2) the linearity of learning, i.e. the general idea that the foundational blocks of learning post-secondary education continue sequentially until a full programme of a Bachelor and perhaps even a Master course is completed, after that learning can be additive in smaller blocks, but generally does not increase the value of a person’s formal educational profile. This makes higher education exclusive to certain population groups (there are no higher education systems in the world, which fully reflect population diversity of the country they are based in) and leads to the increasing criticism that what is being learnt is outdated as soon as the graduate leaves the ‘institution’ higher education.

Flexibility of provision of learning which is not based on a common path of linearity (like climbing a ladder), but spiral shaped (interchanging spheres of depth) and which is not based on fixed content (‘knowledge canons’) is a challenge for higher education. However, openness of provision, unbundling of higher education programmes and closer, more individualised support of learners by educators are all being facilitated through digital solutions.

The future is already visible

It will be a major challenge for the AHEAD study to make predictions on what forms of higher education provision are most likely in 2030. But in our research we are already able to look to existing innovative practices across the world and to statistical and qualitative trends in skills and knowledge demand, learning theory and digital learning innovations, which will shape these processes on route to the year 2030.

This may seem a long time in the future, but the 8-year olds of today will be in tertiary education in 2030 (many of them undertaking some form of Bachelor course?) and the 18-year olds will possibly be their instructors. But also the 30 year-old across the road could be a Bachelor student in 2030. We are, then, surrounded by our future, which just have to recognise it.



Picture of process of osmosis from

Start of German study on higher ed in a digital world

International team under the leadership of a FiBS/HIS-HE Consortium investigates the demands on higher education in the digital world and develops scenarios for 2030.

Announcing a new study “International Horizon Scanning: Trend Analysis on the Digitalisation of Higher Education”, which start in February 2018 and is carried out by the FiBS Research Institute for the Economics of Education and Social Affairs in cooperation with the HIS-HE Institute for Higher Education Development. The study is commissioned by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The FiBS/HIS-HE Consortium headed by Dr. Dominic Orr and Dr. Klaus Wannemacher includes researchers from Graz University of Technology (Dr. Martin Ebner) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Philipp Schmidt, MIT Media Lab). The project duration of the study is one year.

German higher education is growing and diversifying. The composition of students is changing, the expectations of higher education are rising, and the digitization of people’s lives is making new learning environments possible. The new study examines which new models of higher education will emerge to meet the challenges by 2030. The objective of the study thus echoes some of the aims in the draft coalition agreement of the German government, which speaks of a new ‘push for digital education’, focusing on the changes to and challenges emerging from the economy and the world of work. To meet these challenges the acquisition of new competencies through new forms of learning will be necessary. At the same time, the draft agreement emphasizes digitization as a great opportunity to improve teaching and learning for higher education institutions.

Against this background, the study will investigate likely future developments of higher education in Germany with a special focus on the changes resulting from digitization. Future scenarios will be developed using the method of horizon-scanning, which will analyse emerging trends in the following areas:

  • Knowledge and competence requirements emerging through economic and societal change
  • New learning theories that will lead to pedagogic modifications for effective teaching and learning
  • Emerging digital technologies that will enable new forms of learning and new learning environments

The study will also use innovative methods, such as a blogging festival, to discuss the first conclusions and gather further ideas with a wide range of experts.

In order to assure that the international perspective on future developments is reflected in its work, the consortium will be supported by international experts from the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway and South Korea, as well as the World Bank.