The canary in the mine

Image: IKON

In 2014 Unite Students, Ash Futures and University Alliance worked together to create four future scenarios for the UK HE sector in 2034One of these scenarios was highly popular with students, higher education and student accommodation professionals alike.

Living Well describes a world in which the UK’s post-industrial economy genuinely values knowledge and expertise. The Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell’s vision of a society valuing liberalism, social justice and environmentalism has come to pass and long term, inclusive thinking prevails. Such a society rewards higher education, and unsurprisingly it is in high demand.

Living well was also rated the most likely by most of us involved in the research in 2014. We believed we were heading to a future in which world governments collaborate strongly on climate change, the UK has a booming knowledge economy and sustainable growth is the aim and the norm.

This may still come to pass but it’s not a certainty and, three years on, it now looks rather optimistic. It was arguably an example of cognitive bias at its most rampant – one thing that scenarios are designed to expose and challenge in decision-making groups.

So how do we ensure that we don’t miss the signs that the future may not live up to our fierce optimism? More importantly, how do those in roles of leadership and influence look past their own cognitive bias to ensure that potential risks and opportunities have been fully identified, accurately evaluated and appropriately addressed?

A useful approach is to use the full range of scenarios in the report to draw out a few ‘canaries in the mine’ –  events that, should they happen, will signal that we might be heading towards a future we aren’t expecting or looking out for right now.

1: The gig economy is introduced into UK GDP calculations; Public sector employment reaches 21%

Rising employment in the public sector and the casual economy may be a sign that big business is in decline or moving elsewhere and that traditional small business growth is limited. It may also suggest a political shift towards a larger public sector.

These are changes we’d expect to see if the the world is heading towards one of our scenarios – a future in which the UK economy is stagnant and where there is a low appetite for personal, public or business investment in higher level skills. In this scenario, strong local communities work together to create a different kind of economy which is beneficial to individuals and local areas.

In such a world, full-time study may decline sharply and part-time degrees could become the new normal. Research may also feel the pinch, with only niche disciplines and teams collaborating, and with the new economic super-powers being funded via traditional models.  However, new and more locally-focused models for applied research may also emerge.

2: Protectionist trade agreements emerge rapidly; more countries follow the UK in leaving the EU

In the most gloomy of our four scenarios, the dream of globalisation is over and the UK – indeed the whole world – resembles a series of disaffected warring tribes. Divisions between nations, regions and even neighbours have never been deeper. Think of your favourite young adult dystopian movie and you won’t go far wrong.

One of the potential indicators of such a scenario, ‘London explores the feasibility of independence’, seemed laughable to us in 2014, yet in 2016 was on the cards. How times change.

Higher education won’t disappear entirely in this scenario, but value for money will be king. Superfast degrees of 18 months and a no-frills approach to everything may be required.

3: Incidence of severe ‘common mental disorder’ among adults rises to over 10% before 2021 ; SpaceX wins the race to Mars

In this future, the UK and the world economy are both doing well, but there is a price to pay. Working life is fast-paced and stressful, and the gap between the rich and poor continues to widen.

Such a scenario may be in the interests of the higher education sector. Knowledge and research are in high demand, student fees are completely uncapped and knowledge workers are globally connected.

However, not everyone will be able to benefit, and widening participation may be lower on the agenda or may even have been abandoned.

Moreover, universities may face strong and credible competition from a smart private sector that has proved itself bold, innovative and effective in its own research and learning.

Globally connected universities and those innovative in their partnership approach are likely to be the winners in such a scenario – for winners and losers there will surely be.

Of course, this is all just a highly speculative bit of fun. Except that it isn’t. Although we may not like it, these things could happen and institutions that survive and even thrive will be the ones that were prepared. Long-term scenario planning, if done rigorously, can be uncomfortable – and this is a very good thing because it’s the antidote to blind optimism.

However, with apologies to Star Trek’s late, great James Tiberius Kirk, the future is not an undiscovered country. It is more like a blank canvas which we can all have a hand in painting, and with universities very much at the forefront. We may even be able to help create the Living Well scenario after all if we all focus our efforts on it. What would you need to do differently to make it so?

In the meantime, keep an eye on UK employment figures within the legal and financial services’ industries. If these start to drop off, it may mean you’re going to be replaced by AI in the next few years…

This blog post is based on work carried out by Ash Futures; it represents the author’s personal views. It is part of Wonkhe’s HE Futures series. There’s more information about the series here.

2 thoughts on “The canary in the mine”

  1. Simon James says:

    ‘Undiscovered country’ being attributed to Kirk is a joke, isn’t it?? Nice piece, thank you.

  2. Jenny Shaw says:

    Hi Simon I’m glad you liked the article and it was indeed a joke!

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