The University of the Future

In the previous post we talked (using a text of Enry Etzkowitz) about how we –in 1999- saw the University of the future. At that time, at the end of the last century, we were very active analyzing the new role of universities. We evoked the first universities (Bologna, Paris, Oxford) appeared during Century XII. Teaching was the only function of those primitive institutions. Science, until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, advanced by individual actions and by certain scientific societies. In that first stage, the universities did not participate in the process of generating knowledge and only transmitted it. It seems that the first research university was that of Berlin, founded in 1809. Other sources consider that it was the University of Göttingen, also in Germany and created in 1737. The research university, to a large extent, was a consequence of the first effects of industrialization. Adding research to teaching as a university mission constituted a revolution, a first great revolution.

We were saying in 1999 that universities were at that moment facing a second revolution with a new role: to foster the economic development of the environment through technology transfer and the university-business relationship. In this new scenario, researchers had to contribute, as before, to the expansion of knowledge through research. However, then, in addition, they had to facilitate their capitalization. Accordingly, the University of 1999 already had three missions: teaching, research and economic development of the environment through technology transfer and collaboration with the private sector. In that context, the challenge for the university was to achieve a balance between the three responsibilities and to avoid that the one that was added later, the one of transfer of technology and of collaboration with the company, affected the good development of the two traditional ones. If one of these three functions is not executed, the university institution suffers.

Moreover, it is not a purely institutional responsibility. Researchers, on an individual basis, must also maintain a balance and contribute to each of them. It is not enough that certain people are specialized in basic research, others in applied research and others do teaching. Basic research is the driving force that guarantees quality teaching and enables applied research for industry. It also consolidates the reputation and international competitiveness of the institution. For its part, teaching provides a permanent source of new young talent and is one of the most important channels to generate an impact on society. Finally, the technology transfer and business collaboration constitute a mechanism of control, a link with reality and, ultimately, another channel of influence for society. During the last 20 years we have worked to generate here this type of university and I believe we have achieved the objective: Our universities have perfectly assumed the three missions.

But….What happens now? Is the same conceptual model still valid? How do we now define the University of the future?

Universities today face a set of challenges. In a very synthetic way, two changes are appreciated:

1) The first is that the third mission evolves. From technology transfer, science parks, collaboration with industry….a new model is reached in which individuals become essential pieces of disruption and creativity. Students are aware that they are those individuals who will generate innovation and disruption. They demand a milieu to develop their possibilities in this regard.

2) The second change totally harms the first mission: teaching. Global innovative companies (for example Google) no longer value the certificate issued by universities, the “stamp” that accredits a person’s knowledge. The rapid technological and scientific change makes certain curricula obsolete before the first students finish their bachelors and masters. Training is becoming universal through platforms like Coursera ( that allow access to the most prestigious universities without leaving home. Khan Academy started with videos and today is a global platform There are also specialized actors who bet on entering the training. For example, Barça has launched its Barça Innovation Hub and its Barça Universitas already with 12 courses specialized in sports: Certificate in Technology and Applied Sports, Certificate of Sports Nutrition or Master in Football Business, among others. A few days ago we read an article by Chris Weller[1] who referred to the vision of the futurist Thomas Frey. This said that in 2030 there will be a much more sophistical and massive version of the current moocs (Massive Online Open Courses). But in addition, the teachers will be robots, which will customize the training to each student. The distribution of knowledge of universities, teaching, is therefore in question. But….The University is spaces, scientists and students. What happens if the students do not have the need to go to the universities to train? The educational spaces lose their meaning. What does the University become?

A breakthrough of the future may be as follows:

  • Training will go away from the University.
  • The University will continue to have spaces and scientists, with the other two functions: Research and the third mission; to promote the economic development of the environment.
  • Universities cannot lose the great value of students and alumni. Therefore, their spaces and their scientists should serve to:
    • Deepen in the formation, perfecting and specializing.
    • Impregnate students with science and technology. How? Making them part of the second mission, the research process. Universities will be distinguished by the quality and interest of research projects in which students (all students) can participate.
    • Channel and facilitate the employability and creativity of the students by making them participants in the third mission: the economic development of the environment. Universities will be distinguished by their ability to develop their students’ creativity, innovation and disruption. In addition, in particular, for their ability to find good jobs for their students and/or for helping them to create startup companies and make them grow.

Audrestch[2] refers to:

  • The Entrepreneurial University (which was the one we were looking for in 1999)
  • The University for an entrepreneurial society (which is what awaits us for the future)

He says that the entrepreneurial university leaves the core Humboldt disciplines and research areas untouched, as well as all other parts of the universities that are not engaged in generating knowledge that might have a commercial application. Thus, something of a dichotomy emerges for the entrepreneurial university with certain parts of the university contributing to the commercialization mission while other parts alienated or at least not participating in this mission.

By contrast, for the university contributing to the entrepreneurial society, many if not most aspects of the university contribute to the generation of entrepreneurship capital, if not explicitly then through an orientation enhancing and celebrating freedom of inquiry and creativity but also with an awareness these values have beyond the walls of the university.

Therefore, a university, instead of classrooms, will require laboratories, workshops, coworkings, fablabs, companies and projects in which students (the totality of the students) put into practice what they learn in the corresponding moocs or training pills. On the other hand, the University will have to help find employments for all these students or help them to create their own companies based on their creativity. This type of university will contribute to the acceleration of the pace of technological change.

[1] Online learning taught by robots could be widespread by 2030. Ideas Reporter, Business Insider (

[2] From the entrepreneurial university to the university for the entrepreneurial society. Technol Transf (2014) 39:313–321