Researching the future university

By Adam Matthews, University of Birmingham

About the HE Education Research UK Blog Series
To raise awareness of the HE Education Research Census and contribute to a conversation about HE education research in the UK, this blog series explores a wide range of issues at the forefront of education research today. It includes blogs from colleagues at all career stages, research areas and nations of the UK. Please get in touch if you too would like to contribute.

The idea and purpose of the contemporary university is a key question for policymakers, university leaders and education researchers. In contemporary UK policy terms, debates are centred around access and quality alongside regulation versus free markets (McVitty, 2022). This is under the backdrop of free speech and culture wars playing out on campuses and wider society. For some, widening university access to the ‘masses’ has created a social divide of graduates and non-graduates (Savage, 2015), where policy aligns a degree directly to employment outcomes (Matthews and Kotzee, 2019) creating social division and fostering populist politics (Goodhart, 2017; Barnett, 2019). For education researchers, these are pressing structural, philosophical, policy and practice questions to be tackled.

A more creative and imaginative conceptualisation of the university is needed in the 2020s to tackle unknown futures grounded in research-orientation and enquiry (Matthews, et al 2021) for an educated and participatory democracy (Williams, 2011). Raymond Williams wrote of a Long Revolution to such a democracy in the mid 20th century, whereby increased access to education and knowledge aided by information technologies would further democratise society. Martin Trow (1973), following Williams, described a (not necessarily neat linear transition) move from elite, to mass, to potential universal access to the university and higher education. Technologies were key for Williams and Trow. For them, these were television and radio. Of course, the internet builds on such opportunities for access and interaction today. Caplan (2018) goes as far to say that widespread access to knowledge deems the current university system obsolete.

In looking to the future, we need to assess where we have come from and the path dependency and residual ideas and discourses which have been left behind which continue to act, affect and influence. Building on the work of Nørgård et al (2019) and Trow, I have conceptualised the development of the university as:

  • Mode 1 – Elite Ivory Tower in the Enlightenment period
  • Mode 2 – Mass Factory of neoliberal knowledge economies
  • Mode 3 – Universal Network in a network society

These modes are tentative ways to describe a historical development but also discourses still prevalent in ideas of a university today. Mode 1 is autonomous with freedom of enquiry as knowledge as an end in itself (i.e., Collini, 2012). Mode 2 has developed under the backdrop of a neoliberal knowledge economy with greater Government involvement. The factory analogy sees ‘the masses’ access the once elite and exclusive product of research and teaching with inputs and outputs along the production line.

Marginson (2019) has argued that there have only ever been three great ideas of a university, that of Kant and Humboldt in Germany, Henry Newman in the UK (Mode 1) and Clark Kerr’s description of the US system building upon the ‘strands of history’ (Mode 2) of the European idea of a university as a ‘Multiversity’:

“German intellectualism and American populism were merged in the new university. Pure intellect and raw pragmatism made an unlikely but successful alliance.”

(Kerr, 2001, p.36).

The Mode 3 Networked Universal University then has the potential to remove boundaries (inwards and outwards) with democratic access. Digital technologies, particularly in a post-pandemic world play a part, but the networked university is not purely digital. A technological, deterministic view of the idea of a university has already played out with the failure of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) to broaden access to knowledge and qualifications following the hype of the early 2010s. Moreover, part-time access to an undergraduate degree has declined rapidly despite the huge gains and political will of the post-war welfare state (Matthews and Kotzee, 2020). Technologies are not purely tools to be manipulated but are creating complex policy networks in education (Matthews, 2020; Peruzzo, 2022)

The Mode 3 Networked University is networked as part of a Network Society as described by Castells (2000):

“Networks constitute the new social morphology of our societies, and the diffusion of networking logic substantially modifies the operation and outcomes in processes of production, experience, power, and culture. While the networking form of social organization has existed in other times and spaces, the new information technology paradigm provides the material basis for its pervasive expansion throughout the entire social structure.”

(Castells, 2000, p.500)

In line with other large global organisations, university growth (in number and size) and an increased public and private responsibility requires many specialist roles beyond teaching and research. This has led to unbundling, outsourcing and specialist employees as well as partners and service providers. The consumerisation of higher education has grasped such an ideal in unbundling parts of the university. Any consumer will be familiar with unbundling. The package holiday has been broken down into constituent parts (flights, accommodation, excursions, luggage size, meals etc), mobile phone and TV packages are other examples. Wang (1975) said the same could happen to education with teaching, assessment, deadlines and structure and alumni services all as services which you ‘bolt on’ and pay extra for. An example of this is Online Programme Management (OPMs) partnering with universities to not only build courses but also to teach, market and support students (Perotta, 2018). The core of the mode 1 and 2 universities has been teaching and research which is also in danger of being unbundled as research and teaching excellence (REF and TEF) policy converge and contradict (Matthews and Kotzee, 2022).

McCowan (2017) reminds university leaders, administrators and academics to not unbundle so much that we see the end of the university as we know it.

“Universities—and all educational institutions—must respond to changing circumstances outside, but that does not mean accepting all forms of change whatever their value, and relinquishing their role also as agents and shapers of society.”

(McCowan, 2017, p.746)

In Mode 2, Kerr described the development and growth of the university as it brought its product (knowledge) to the market:

“Knowledge is now central to society. It is wanted, even demanded, by more people and more institutions than ever before. The university as producer, wholesaler and retailer of knowledge cannot escape service. Knowledge, today, is for everybody’s sake.”

(Kerr, 2001, p.86)

While Mode 2 might still be the dominant culture of UK Universities (Matthews, 2021) a Mode 3 Networked University is emerging which will be shaped by a variety of actors (including technologies) – the question for future research, policy and practice is what is deemed to be the role and activities of the university, the network of actors involved and how these complex networks enact the future idea of the university. A challenge for those researching and working in higher education is the complexity of the university in mode 3 and how to tackle the pressing structural, philosophical and policy issues as well as the lived experience of students, academics, professional staff, leadership, employers, and the growing list of actors networked within and beyond the university.

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Adam Matthews is a Lecturer in Education, Technology and Society at the University of Birmingham. Adam works across both Engineering and Physical Sciences and Social Sciences at the University. This allows for interdisciplinary working in both teaching and research. Adam’s academic background and training is in the Social Sciences and research interests focus on the intersection of education, technology and society with the idea of a university as one of his main research interests.


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  • Caplan, B. D. (2018). The case against education: Why the education system is a waste of time and money. Princeton University Press.
  • Collini, S. (2012). WHAT ARE UNIVERSITIES FOR? Penguin Books.
  • Goodhart, D. (2017). The road to somewhere: The populist revolt and the future of politics. Hurst & Company.
  • Kerr, C. (2001). The uses of the university (5th ed). Harvard University Press.
  • Marginson, S. (2019). The Kantian University: Worldwide triumph and growing insecurity. Australian Universities’ Review, 61(1), 12.
  • Matthews, A. (2020). Sociotechnical imaginaries in the present and future university: A corpus-assisted discourse analysis of UK higher education texts. Learning, Media and Technology, 1–14.
  • Matthews, A., & Kotzee, B. (2019). The rhetoric of the UK higher education Teaching Excellence Framework: A corpus-assisted discourse analysis of TEF2 provider statements. Educational Review, 1–21.
  • Matthews, A., & Kotzee, B. (2020). UK university part-time higher education: A corpus-assisted discourse analysis of undergraduate prospectuses. Higher Education Research & Development, 1–16.
  • Matthews, A., & Kotzee, B. (2022). Bundled or unbundled? A multi‐text corpus‐assisted discourse analysis of the relationship between teaching and research in UK universities. British Educational Research Journal, berj.3783.
  • Matthews, A. M., McLinden, M., & Greenway, C. (2021). Rising to the pedagogical challenges of the Fourth Industrial Age in the university of the future: An integrated model of scholarship. Higher Education Pedagogies, 6(1), 1–21.
  • McCowan, T. (2017). Higher education, unbundling, and the end of the university as we know it. Oxford Review of Education, 43(6), 733–748.
  • McVitty, D. (2022). In the Augar response ministers are trying for a third way between capping opportunity or letting the HE market run amok. Wonkhe.
  • Nørgård, R. T., Mor, Y., & Bengtsen, S. S. E. (2019). Networked Learning in, for, and with the World. In A. Littlejohn, J. Jaldemark, E. Vrieling-Teunter, & F. Nijland (Eds.), Networked Professional Learning (pp. 71–88). Springer International Publishing.
  • Perrotta, C. (2018). Digital Learning in the UK: Sociological Reflections on an Unequal Marketplace. Social Sciences, 7(10), 170.
  • Peruzzo, F., Ball, S. J., & Grimaldi, E. (2022). Peopling the crowded education state: Heterarchical spaces, EdTech markets and new modes of governing during the COVID-19 pandemic. International Journal of Educational Research, 114, 102006.
  • Savage, M. (2015). Social class in the 21st century. Pelican, an imprint of Penguin Books.
  • Trow, M. (1973). Problems in the Transition from Elite to Mass Higher Education.
  • Williams, R. (2011). The long revolution. Parthian.

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