Higher Education Strategy Associates

This ‘Predicting the Future’ Business

Well, that’s another conference season done.

Whether I am at a conference to mingle, learn or present, I always tend to be in sessions where people are doing the trend-watching, trying to tease out “The Future” for the benefit of conference-goers. The problem with these trend-spotting sessions – and I don’t exclude my own from this criticism, by the way – is that they tend to fall prey to one of the following four mistakes.

Assuming That Because Cool Things Can Happen, They Will Happen. Some presenters riff off a whole bunch of interesting one-off experiments at different institutions and declare them “trends”. At its most frivolous, this veers into Management by Anecdote: because somebody did something cool somewhere, everybody needs to head in that direction RIGHT NOW. But it can also have more serious consequences. It is this line of thinking which is driving the dumbest bits of the “Great Disruption” canard.

Ignoring National Context. There’s a problem in assuming that what matters in one national context is relevant in others. Although we talk about higher education as being increasingly transnational, the fact is that upwards of 95% of the system is rooted in some very national contexts. While there is much interesting stuff going on in the United States right now, a lot of it is very tied to the specific nature of their system, including having large numbers of private institutions, much greater levels of institutional differentiation and a student aid system which is part-genius and part-deranged. Inferring the future of Canadian institutions from current US experiments is… courageous.

Over-Extrapolating from Present Trends. The external environment in which higher education exists is subject to rapid change. Demography is not destiny. Funding patterns may change suddenly (for instance, who in 1995 would have predicted that university funding would increase strongly in the decade to 2005?). Big changes can happen quickly – the best you can do is spot and monitor potential sources of change.

Under-estimating How Conservative People Are About Education. This is a big one. It’s not just that universities are change averse; consumers are, too. Innovations which haven’t been adopted by top universities are always seen as suspect, and people are surprisingly tied to idea of universities as being ancient entities, even when they are not. I heard recently of one relatively new institution which tried to award diplomas on plain paper with sans-serif fonts and ended up with an absolute nightmare of a PR issue with its own graduates.

So, next time you see anyone (including me!) giving a “where will we be in 2020” kind of presentation, and they’re falling prey to one of these four mistakes – give ‘em hell.

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