Speaker giving presentation in lecture hall at university. Students listening to lecture and making notes.

A refreshing frankness was on display in a recent discussion on the future of higher education. It emanated from one of the sector’s leading expert analysts and it came in the form of his answer to several questions concerning the outlook for universities.

It was – “I don’t know”.

Often we feel disappointed and maybe a little let down when we hear those three words. Perhaps we think “well, you should know” or “couldn’t you do better than that?” After all, who admits to not knowing something in their area of expertise?

But Georgia Tech distinguished professor and renowned author Richard DeMillo was absolutely right to admit that he didn’t know when, for example, MOOCs might replace physical universities or when digital learning will do away with the need for actual classrooms. (We should say that in this Future Trends forum video chat DeMillo did know plenty of things too.)

As DeMillo indicated, there are just some things we can’t foretell. Predictions and prophecy are fraught with peril in higher education right now because a running stream of new information is constantly challenging our assumptions and presumptions.

For example, a recent report from Barnes and Noble College presents some compelling insights into the outlook of a generation of young people not yet at university – young teens still at school.

Entitled Getting To Know Gen Z: Exploring Middle and High Schoolers’ Expectations For Higher Education (pdf), it surveys what this cohort thinks university should be about.

What may disappoint some purists who believe higher education should not be merely instrumental is that a majority surveyed had a practical outlook -university is seen as the pathway to securing work:

“…their number one concern … is whether or not they will be able to find a good job after graduation”.

After university, says the report, more than 40 per cent of Gen Z respondents seek careers that suit their specific interests, “and tend to envision careers in technology, such as computer science and video game development”.

Particularly fascinating is that many of these teens are fledgling entrepreneurs …

more than one-third of Gen Z students either currently have their own business or plan on having one in the future”.

And those aged between 13-15 are twice as likely to currently have their own online business compared to older teens.

Like DeMillo, we have to admit we don’t know what any of this will mean for the future of higher education.

But we can’t help but wonder if these business-savvy youngsters will one day have a thing or two to teach their teachers.

– DM