The future of universities and education – futurist and keynote speaker Ross Dawson

future of universities and education
Ross Dawson is a globally renowned futurist who shares powerful insights into the future of business, society, government, and education. Dawson is a specialist virtual keynote speaker who has also delivered physical keynotes and workshops in over 30 countries.

See below for full article on Global Social and Technology Trends Shaping the Future of Universities.

Keynote speaker topic – The future of universities and education


Universities and tertiary education institutions are being disrupted by a wide variety of social and technological forces. Developments including the globalization of services work, the increasing value of domain expertise, and the rise of online open courses are creating both challenges and opportunities for incumbents as well as new entrants. The unbundling of research, education, content, and certification means that new business models and ways of engaging of students will be at the heart of a prosperous future for universities.


One of futurist Ross Dawson’s keynote speeches on the future of universities was presented at an invitation-only conference organized by the Institute of Chartered Accountants. The following article was adapted from his keynote, and published as the lead article in The Virtual University: Impact on Accounting and Business Education.

Global Social and Technology Trends Shaping the Future of Universities

With the world in a state of major transition there are implications for nearly every aspect of society, not least universities and business education. Let us begin with a broad perspective of the changes that are taking place globally in terms of technology, society and structures, and then focus our lens on education, and specifically business education.

Education is so critical in this seismic shift in the world because the transitions we are experiencing are centred on one essential element—knowledge. The pace of decay of knowledge is increasing significantly. A few decades ago, university students would study for a degree, graduate, then live off the fruits of that study for the next 10 years or more. Today, by the time a credential is achieved, the knowledge is already out of date. By just about any measure, the pace of decay of knowledge is increasing.

One of the implications of this rising pace of knowledge decay is that we must be specialists. If we are not knowledge specialists then we are being left behind. If we do not have world-class expertise in our domain we are commodities. As we connect together these pools of deep knowledge around the world, we are seeing the emergence of what can be described as a ‘global brain’, similar to the notion of collective intelligence. While this idea is not new, it is only in the last decade that we have become so richly connected that it is moving from a dream to reality. This is a shift in who we are, our human identity, and absolutely in how we learn.

Let us look at future trends by considering three major domains: technology, social change and the structure of business and society. These three domains are, of course, deeply connected. Much of the social change we have seen over the last decade has been shaped by technology. The technologies of communication that bring openness and free flows of information are engendering a major shift in social attitudes. However, the influence is not just one-way. Social attitudes are also driving the technologies that we are creating. Online education is an illustration of this phenomenon.

Today I will outline key ideas about the future of work, the future of learning and the future of credentials. This will lead us to the implications for universities, and in particular for accounting education. The intention is not to provide a roadmap to the future, but rather to provoke useful thought about the quest that is ahead of us and the actions we can usefully take today.


The underlying information technologies that drive our age—processing power, storage and bandwidth—are increasing their capabilities at an exponential rate. However the human brain is not well geared to understanding the power of exponential change. It is just in 1998 the 56K modem became available, at the time giving us Internet access at unprecedented speeds. We have come a long way since then. Today a rapidly increasing proportion of our access to the Internet is via mobile devices (see Figure 1). We use tablets and smartphones to access information. This changes the nature of work. It changes the nature of how we connect. It changes the relationship between employees and companies. It absolutely changes the relationships between universities and educational institutions and their students.

Figure 1

The continued increase in processing power shifts the relationship between humans and machines. Recently a computer won the US game show Jeopardy, a game based on wordplay, illusion and imagination, demonstrating the increasingly human-like capabilities of machines. Our interface between humans and computers is also rapidly evolving. For example, the forthcoming Google Glass wearable computer will provide us with new and easier ways to access information and control our computers.


The dominant trend in society is increasing expectations. One of those expectations is for opportunity. Figure 2 shows the distribution of annual income for the world’s population. While there are 10 million people in the world who have more than a million dollars in the bank, there are over a billion people who earn less than $1 a day. These people need the basics of life, such as food, water and healthcare. However there are billions of others who have moved beyond that level and see that there is a possibility to create a better life for themselves and others. They expect to have the opportunity to achieve that.

In developed countries, we are fortunate (in most cases) to have our basic needs met. But we share this drive to better ourselves. The most important means of social mobility is education. Through technology, today we have access to education as we have never had before.

Figure 2


In 1932 Ronald Coase wrote a paper titled ‘The Nature of the Firm’, for which he won the Nobel Prize for Economics over 60 years later. He wrote that organisations exist because of transaction costs. As we have become connected transaction costs have fallen, creating what we can think of as a ‘modular economy’, in which value is created in smaller and smaller inter-connected modules.

An illustration of the modular economy in action can be found in the city of Chongqing in western China, which has taken over from Japan as the global centre of motorcycle manufacturing. Manufacturers in Chongqing have taken a new approach, in which they relinquish control and encourage collaboration. They say to their suppliers, “This is what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to create a motorcycle with these characteristics; it goes this fast; it has these safety features; and has this kind of design sensibility. You guys go away and do it”. The various suppliers are essentially modules in the modular economy, creating things that fit together to meet the overall objective. In so doing an extraordinarily efficient motorcycle manufacturing process has been developed, with an average export price of the motorbikes of just over $100.

The unit of value creation in the economy today is not the company. It’s not the organisation. The unit of value creation in the economy today is the individual.

The Future of Work

Work defines who we are as people. Figure 3 outlines future directions for work and the broader labour economy.

Figure 3

The modular economy is both a consequence of, and a contributor to, the globalisation of work. Innovation, products and services, labour, productivity are all available globally. While this brave new world holds exciting possibilities for those with expertise and skills it also reduces possibilities for those without world-class skills. There is a potential for the polarisation of society as an increasing proportion of work becomes commoditised.

The marketplace for work operates on a global scale. Many jobs can be done anywhere. This fundamentally changes the nature of organisations.

As computers increase their capabilities, they can increasingly substitute for human work. For routine tasks, there is substantial potential for substitution. While non-routine tasks have less potential for labour substitution, tasks that require human analytical and creative skills are often complementary to tasks that can be performed by computers. Accountants, for example, use analytical skills but also are assisted in their work by computers.

The Future of Learning

Connectivity not only changes the nature of work. It changes education. The future of education is that it is available, open, continuous and takes place through peer learning.

These particular points are fundamental to the future of universities. What is the purpose of a university education? We must understand that there is an essential distinction between information and knowledge. Knowledge is the capacity to act effectively. Information provided by itself does not necessarily give people knowledge.

In the past people went to university, studied until they had a degree, then went to work and applied that knowledge. In the future learning will be modular, contextual and just in time.

Modular knowledge provides resources in a specific context, in which a question is asked, a problem confronted. When an obstacle is encountered the solution is sought in the form of a specific module of learning needed to solve that particular problem. This context specific module is acquired just as we need it, ‘just in time’.

Jay Cross, one of the leaders of informal learning, describes this as workflow learning, that is, learning that is embedded in the flow of work. When you reach a particular activity where you need to know something, you reach out to find what you need to know. The ‘learning module’ may be in any number of forms: a video, an article, or an individual who knows what you need to know or who has experienced what you are experiencing. This kind of learning is about networks, about access, about critical thinking and problem solving. It is different to being in a lecture theatre or classroom. Because it is contextual it is more meaningful and more useful.

In this way learning is personalised and tailored. Every person has a different learning style. A fundamental shift required across education is that learning must become personal, must become suited to our experience, to our style of thinking, to the context in which we are working. Different and new modes of delivery make this increasingly possible, whether it is online or in a university.

The Future of Certification

Certification or credentials are one of the most fundamental elements of what a university provides. Central to certification is the power of the institution. Yet if we look at the big trends discussed earlier— technology, social expectations and structure— these all point to the erosion of the power of institutions. This does not mean that institutions will disappear, but their power will certainly diminish.

As institutions become less powerful we are seeing a rise in the reputation economy, in which individuals’ and organisations’ reputation become visible. People get jobs and succeed in them because of the esteem in which they are held by their peers. In many respects society at large operates on a peer review system, similar to that of the scholarly community.

Peer review is at the centre of the viability of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs). If 100,000 students are undertaking a course of study there is no way that any team of teachers can provide meaningful individual assessments. Peer review is the only practicable way to be able to address the scale of this problem. It is likely that peer review systems, if appropriately designed, can give similar results to those provided by an expert reviewer.

A shift in thinking is perhaps required about what certification and credentials provide as traditionally provided by institutions. A degree or certificate is just one dimension of learning. It provides an assessment of whether a student is good at passing exams, writing essays and so on, but does it reveal a person’s ability in the workplace? Organisations certainly don’t think so because they employ a wide range of other tests before they hire graduates. There is much greater value in an institution providing a credential that is based on an individual’s capabilities, not simply their academic ability. That is an opportunity for institutions to provide more value to employers.

The Future for Education

In all of these shifts global competition is a fundamental aspect of the emerging landscape, in every domain including accounting education. While there are different accounting regulations across countries that effectively protect practitioners from competition, these regulations will vary less in the future. This global future is both inbound and outbound, with corporations and individuals from around the world operating in Australia, and Australian organisations having the capacity to become global in a way that geography has prevented in the past. All kinds of organisations, including professional bodies and business educators, in years to come will face more competition, but also more opportunity.

There are several domains in which it is useful to ‘unbundle’ the different functions of today’s universities that are usually considered together. The first domain is that linking research and education. Whereas in the past academics and their funding have bundled research and education together, these are increasingly being treated separately. Education itself could be unbundled into teaching and certification. Some institutions could focus on teaching students, with different institutions offering credentials of people’s knowledge and capabilities.

Within the act of educating, there is further ‘unbundling’ possible in which the delivery of education can be provided in a wide variety of ways, through different platforms and media.

In our networked world there is a massive shift from the emphasis on the expert towards peer learning. Appropriately designed, peer learning exploits both the possibilities of connectivity and the unmatchable value that can be created in a face-to-face teaching environment.

We are absolutely at the dawn of a new era for education and the accounting profession. I invite you to create the future of business education.

This article first appeared as Chapter 1 in The Virtual University: Impact on Accounting and Business Education.

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