How could HE contribute to better futures for all?

Higher education takes active responsibility in recognising our common humanity by opening up and developing the potential of all humans; it promotes well-being and sustainability by orienting towards justice, solidarity and human rights; and it draws strength from intercultural diversity and forges collaborations between people, groups, and local and global communities.

These were the key messages from experts consulted by the UNESCO International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (IESALC). Their views are synthesised in IESALC’s report, Futures of Higher Education, published on 25 November.

The experts were asked: How would you like higher education to be in 2050? How could higher education contribute to better futures for all in 2050?

They concluded that higher education in 2050 will change in ways that are transformative, incremental, disruptive and smooth.

Higher education should take on responsibility for promoting the well-being of the Earth, “its diversity and sustainability, its security and beauty”, said one expert. Another opined that higher education should promote better human guardianship of all Earth’s entities, human and non-human. It should also contribute to social and economic development.

In terms of funding higher education, they concluded that the question of who will pay for it is an issue that will remain pertinent into the future. They observed that higher education institutions that charge students fees exclude many from participating and are increasingly at the behest of those who pay the fees.

Other higher education institutions that face reductions in public funding will find it far more difficult to function and achieve their goals, although the “public good characteristics of knowledge” is a good reason for them to gain more public funding. Which is why higher education should become a right, in the same way that primary education is enshrined in human rights law.

They also pointed out that for learners to be able to flourish in and beyond higher education in 2050, the values and organisation of all levels of education should be connected.

Although access to higher education around the world has expanded massively, looking ahead, the report says, “more should be done in fulfilling the right to higher education for all”.

Flexible and inclusive pathways

It follows that greater focus should be placed on crafting “flexible and inclusive pathways and programmes”, as well as adaptive and creative approaches to assessing and accrediting learning outcomes.

Barriers to learning must be removed, “including discrimination by gender, age or ethnicity, as well as affordability-related barriers”, the report states.

Also, higher education institutions should work together in incorporating intercultural education in a multilingual environment, promoting access to multiple languages, and translations of publications “to facilitate the democratisation of knowledge so that higher education truly is a right for all”.

Thinking ahead to 2050, the report says that “education in general and higher education in particular should be…the time/space combination that can fit every [learner] …where they are allowed to develop their own abilities and expertise. The latter requires changes in the role of learners and of teachers as well as the structures around them”. Augmenting learners’ agency is key, said one of the experts consulted.

The report also says that by 2050 learners may be able to “customise their learning experiences, drawing on processes and practices that are flexible and respond to individuals’ unique needs”.

Multiple programmes should be offered to ensure inclusivity. One of the experts added that this should include “more flexible pathways”, allowing for multiple entry and exit points, and combining study and work “in less rigid ways than today”.

As for higher education institutions, they should “adapt their outcomes and assessment structures to meet the varied learning needs of their more diverse learners, the impact of ongoing massification of higher education, and changes in how learners demonstrate their knowledge and skills”.


Automation and other aspects of socio-technological change may enhance the importance of lifelong learning in all sectors, says the report.

As technologies “take over in a big way in all countries”, the report says, an important message for higher education in 2050 is to “do our best to make technology work for us and for us to get the best out of technology”.

According to one of the experts, by 2050 we may have even reached a “post-digital age”, one in which, more so than today, the higher education institution “will be but one of multiple venues of learning”.

The pandemic-inspired shift to online teaching and learning has demonstrated the revolutionary effects of technology on higher education, effects that will continue to be important in the future, the report says. But for each problem technology solves, “social isolation and disconnectedness expose other problems for teachers and learners”, said one of the experts consulted.

The report states that “higher education should advocate for the right to connectivity, to a device, and to networking so that continued digitalisation democratises access and supports better educational experiences”.

It also looks at alternative models of organising knowledge such as the “universal African university” that is, above all, a value-driven institution that is integrated in society, is critically engaged with the world and is grounded in but not bound by its historical roots.

It also mentions the “networked learning hub” that has universities at its core working in collaborative partnerships with online communities, libraries, businesses, civil society groups, etc. They can be funded both by governments and the private sector.

The “living lab for sustainability” centres on sustainability and delivering the Sustainable Development Goals. It supports teachers with resources and training to enable a transition to a green curriculum. In turn, students are prepared for “green jobs” in a “green economy”.

A fundamental message from the experts is that higher education’s strength lies in diversity. It should work on embracing plural ways of knowing and doing. Consideration is given to responding to diverse learners: how they can be supported and the barriers that may preclude access to higher education.

It must also bring different ways of looking at the world into forming better relationships with each other. It means a role for everyone and every region. It means higher education in which people see themselves represented.

“Much will need to be done to dislodge the current dominance of certain knowledges on the journey to pluralise higher education,” the report says.

Looking ahead to 2050 and beyond, there is still ample scope for higher education to continue to spread, particularly in certain regions, for example Africa, the report adds.

It states that it is expected that by that date half of the global population will attend some form of higher education, and that it will be delivered in a mix of in-person, blended and online modalities.

Values such as respect, empathy, equality and solidarity should be at the core of future higher education institutions and their missions, the report says.

As one of the consultants said, the goal is “education with a soul that prepares learners not only for livelihood but for life”.

Higher education institutions should contribute to tolerance, and work for less conflict and support global peace. They should be spaces that support and create civil and democratic societies and give more emphasis to multiple dimensions of sustainability.

The report also says that current forms of internationalisation “should be challenged and questioned with a view to upsetting the elitism of student mobility, the economically driven rationales, the inequalities caused by brain drain, and the homogenising models that are currently dominant”.

Higher education needs not only to welcome but be responsive to diversity. This means, the report states, “higher education institutions and governments making purposive efforts to attract and retain learner who are indigenous, from ethnic minorities, refugees, and-or from marginalised or under-served groups in a way that does not require them to shed their cultures and experiences or give up their identity”.

Higher education, at the system and institutional levels, should be organised around particular values, or, as one expert put it, provide “education with a soul”.

Driven by these soulful values, higher education can stand and act together in collectively responding to global challenges, shape the worlds around it by raising its voice in the global arena and reconsider its engagement across regions by pursuing mutually inclusive internationalisation, the report adds.

“Academically responsible higher education institutions would be valued by their responsiveness to global grand challenges and cooperation, integration, inclusion, caring and civic-mindedness”, it said.