Campus student is threatened species
Going off to university may be a minority pursuit in 20 years' time, even though overall student numbers are likely to be booming.
Bedrooms may become library, study and lecture theatre combined for some undergraduates, as they tap into the Internet - on a pay-per-view basis - to learn from the world's leading academics.
Spending a year or so doing a foundation course at the local college, before transferring to a university to complete undergraduate studies, is also likely to become common practice.
Far less common will be the late-20th-century practice of school-leavers spending three years on a campus as far from home as possible before closing their books forever and disappearing into the world of work.
All these possibilities and more are being discussed by the Government-commissioned Review of Higher Education, led by Sir Ron Dearing, the adviser who has previously reshaped education and training for under-19s.
The review neatly avoided turning universities and their finance into an electoral issue, but its remit did not include getting Sir Ron and his committee to solve the most pressing problems facing higher education.
Rather, it asked him to outline the likely shape of higher education in 20 years' time. Unlike the previous commissions which earned Sir Ron the admiring title of Mr Fixit, he was not asked to detail how the outstanding practicalities should be addressed.
Unless the incoming Government changes its mind and asks for a swiftly-executed report on the specifics, it will be left to grapple with the difficulties according to ideology. Labour has already announced that it wants to see graduates repaying their maintenance once in work, but the Conservative party has been far more wary about the issue since the revolt of middle-class parents in the early 1980s.
Sir Ron, whose report is due in July, is also unlikely to provide specific answers to the pressing problem of tuition fees. Some of the more prestigious universities, angered by Government funding which has not kept pace with the expansion of student numbers, want to charge "top-up" fees. Inevitably, the action of market forces mean those which go ahead are likely to be the top names, leading once again to a two-tier system which was supposed to have been abolished in 1992 along with the dividing line between universities and polytechnics.
What Sir Ron is likely to provide is a fascinating piece of crystal-ball-gazing which will provide the first clear picture of how market forces, lifelong learning and new technology will affect higher learning in the next century. It will then be up to the Government, the universities, opinion formers and even media moguls to work out the fine detail of how things develop.
However, the key to the future will partly depend on how individuals pay for continued learning. With an increasingly "pick-and-mix" approach to undergraduate studies supplanting the norm of three years on campus, thanks to the pressures of finance and new technology, the Dearing committee is understood to have been taken by the idea of individual learning accounts to pay fees.
These accounts, suggested by the Commission for Social Justice and taken up by the Labour party, would include a basic state entitlement which could be augmented by employers and the individual and could well have tax-free status, like personal equity plans.
The employer contribution might encourage deferred entrance to higher education, and would also make it a more attractive part-time proposition, as well as encouraging lifelong learning. This is felt to be essential at a time when an undergraduate degree is increasingly regarded as no more than a starting point.
The report's conclusions - although they are likely to stress the values of diversity rather than any particular model for higher education in 2020 - should give British institutions the opportunity to be ahead of the game in planning for the future. The Internet or its successor is likely to become a conduit for a virtual university, with top names from internationally famous institutions providing a programme of lectures which could be used as part of a home correspondence course or alongside teaching at a local college. International media companies might also become more interested in servicing this market. The nature of degrees themselves could become more flexible, which would mean greater importance attached to accrediting courses and credit transfers.
Although there will still be a place for school- or college-leavers who go on to university to do a three-year residential course, financial constraints are likely to mean that institutions will be within commuting distance of home.
And undergraduates of 18 embarking on three-year courses at Oxbridge? Scholarship-backed geniuses or offspring of rich parents only need apply. Probably.