This article is interested in the futures of Canadian universities. Around the world, much has been written about the futures of universities. Research often suggests that universities are in crisis and provides many prescriptions for addressing their various woes. The global pandemic has accelerated many trends that previously existed, accentuating a sense of dread about the futures of universities. However, the Canadian experience has received a lot less attention. Québec, Alberta, and Newfoundland and Labrador recently undertook reviews of their university sectors, though these documents are not as forward-looking as their titles might suggest and tend to emphasize immediate policy challenges. Canadian universities are evidently subject to many of the same pressures that are affecting their counterparts elsewhere. Yet, Canadian universities are distinctive in that they do not appear to have hit the same reckoning as some of their peers in other countries. For instance, they have not faced the same fiscal pressures as many American institutions. Statistics Canada estimates that the pandemic has cost Canadian universities $3.4 billion in 2020 and, while some institutions are facing steep financial challenges (ex. Laurentian University), the sector holistically is proving to be resilient. Because Canadian universities have fared relatively better, there has not been the same impetus to consider the sectors many possible futures.

This article corrects this omission and provides for creative thinking around the futures of Canadian universities. Using the basics of foresight, it details four plausible scenarios for universities. The development and consideration of these scenarios raise fundamental questions about the choices that confront the sector: what do we expect from universities in light of the major changes occurring across society? What are universities “good for,” and what are they not so “good for”? Do we even agree on their role and place in society and how they ought to contribute to the public good? How can governments support universities in meeting these objectives? How must universities themselves change and adapt? How should they manage the rapid transformations from the data and algorithm revolution already under way? The use of foresight and scenario building do not give direct answers to these questions. Consideration of these plausible futures, however, provides an opportunity to collectively reflect on preferred outcomes and the choices we need to start making to attain them.

Foresight and scenario building

Foresight is a social science discipline and a field of practice with the stated intent to construct plausible futures. It is not predictive, nor proscriptive. Rational decision-making is based on a conception or a set of beliefs about the future. These considerations are often assumed and unstated as actors ponder their choices, impacts, and outcomes. They nonetheless form the basis on which decisions are made. Foresight through various social science methods, such as literature reviews, scenario building, forecasting, and the delphi method consciously outline plausible futures. Thus, foresight should precede strategic planning to guide the preferred course of action, account for possible unintended consequences, and avoid undesirable futures. As an example, university strategic plans or academic plans are often built on a five-year time horizon. These plans only peripherally address futures construction with most assumptions about the future unstated. By clarifying these assumptions, universities could develop plans that more fully conceptualize success in a fast-changing environment, and are more than a list of activities or a wish list of outcomes. Foresight provides for a structured way to conceive of plausible futures facilitating planning, decision making, and action.

Scenario building is an often-used foresight method. Scenarios construct alternative futures through creative stories. They start from the present baseline scenario, determine drivers that will generate change, and use these drivers to imagine potential futures. Scenarios must be plausible, complete and coherent, and insightful. Scenarios stretch beyond trend analysis and forecasting in providing vivid illustration of plausible futures.

The futures of Canadian universities: Four scenarios

Presented below are four plausible scenarios traditionally used in foresight, as identified by James Allen Dator, Professor Emeritus and former Director of the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies: continuation, decline and collapse, limits and disciplines (which has been slightly adapted and is referred to as the golden age), and transformations (which is referred to as the wildcard scenario). These scenarios provide for a system-wide bird’s eyes view of plausible futures of Canadian universities.

The scenarios were developed using four drivers. The list of drivers, though admittedly not exhaustive, reflects some of the major trends that are currently affecting universities.

The first driver is government funding and the public policy environment. Public sector funding remains critical for Canadian universities, both in terms of the level of funding and the ways in which funding is distributed.

The second trend is that of technology or, more aptly, the data and algorithm revolution and the emergence of what some refer to as the “digital university.” Technological transformations affect all operations, from teaching and learning to research to student and administrative services. They have the potential to deeply change the ways in which universities operate.

The third driver refers to changes in curricular programming. For instance, what will an undergraduate degree look like in the future and will disciplines disappear in favor of interdisciplinary education? What might the balance between the STEM, Health-related, and Arts disciplines look like?

The last driver considered for the development of scenarios is that of internationalization, which governments and universities have embraced for purposes of revenue generation and prestige.

Some quick observations on demographics before proceeding. Demographic growth or decline, especially in the student-age population, is of significance in considering futures. Projections from Statistics Canada suggest that the population of the country could exceed 47,000,000 by 2036. Statistics Canada estimate that the 20-24 age group will remain stable or see slight growth. However, demographic projections should be used with care when thinking about universities’ futures. These numbers could be interpreted to mean that the demand for a university education will remain stable in the near to mid-term. This seems likely when considering the retraining requirements of the data and algorithm revolution, and the market for life-long learning. At the same time, there is no guarantee, irrespective of countrywide demographic trends, that the demand will remain the same. Demographic decline in some regions—like that currently taking place in the Northeastern United-States—could severely impact demand in some parts of Canada. Universities may also face new competition; the wildcard scenario envisages that colleges and large businesses completely take over employee training to teach the very specific skills required by industry. Demographics on their own, therefore, only provide limited guidance about futures.

The table below presents a summary of the four scenarios developed for this article.

ScenarioGovernment and public policy environmentTechnologyProgram / CurricularInternationalization
Continuation1) Funding via government and other sources is stable.
2) Government funding has strings attached.
3) Government focuses on performance outcomes.
1) The data and algorithm revolution profoundly affects all operations.
2) Adoption is uneven depending on institutional resources.
3) Further development in distance and online teaching and learning.
1) STEM and Health programming become dominant.
2) Decline in the Arts continues.
3) Programs align the best they can to rapidly changing labour market needs.
1) Universities remain broadly competitive internationally and continue to attract students from abroad.
2) Universities continue to pursue active internationalization, including partnerships.
3) Select universities remain competitive in global rankings.
Decline and collapse1) Funding via government and other sources substantially decreases.
2) Universities faced with a highly competitive environment are forced to consider mergers or closure.
1) Technology is omnipresent and dominant for all operations.
2) Teaching and learning offered online via proprietary AI-based teaching and tutoring bots.
1) Scholarly activities—research and teaching—are devalued.
2) STEM programming heavily favored and the Arts are evermore marginal.
3) In a bid to remain competitive, universities turn to micro-credentials to meet labor market needs.
1) International recruitment drops to very low-level.
2) Canadian universities of limited appeal for international partners.
3) Canadian universities are not competitive globally and are rapidly by-passed in global rankings.
Golden age1) Funding is secured and growing from a variety of sources.
2) Competition raises all boats; coordination and collaboration are favoured.
3) Universities are highly valued and actively contribute to the well-being of their communities.
1) Technology supports and enhance scholarly activities and administrative services.1) Development of new innovative programming across fields; interdisciplinarity is encouraged, though teaching and learning and research is supported across fields.
2) Universities fulfill their promise to have graduates that change the world for the better.
1) International recruitment is stable and provides for a good mix of international and domestic students on campus.
2) Universities expand their global reach and become truly global players.
3) Canadian universities enhance their global ranking.
Wildcard1) There are few universities, though those that exist are prestigious; a university education is a privilege; knowledge is revered.1) There is no (or very limited use of) technology on campus.1) Faculty members mentor students and offer teaching individually or to small groups until they are ready to graduate.
2) Programs emphasize knowledge, virtue and a quest for the good life.
3) Colleges and businesses are responsible for market training.
1) Canadian universities do not actively pursue internationalization.
2) Depending on their programs, students are encouraged to explore the world on their own, and to learn from their experience.

The first scenario is referred to as continuation and presupposes drivers continue in a largely linear fashion. Government funding remains stable and fiscal restraints mean that little to no new monies is available. The threat of cuts is permanent. Government funding is performance-based, as is currently the case in Ontario and Alberta—an advantage being that there is some stability to funding arrangements. Universities adapt to new technologies somewhat unevenly depending on the resources at their disposal. Universities continue to experiment with online and hybrid teaching and learning, and select programs move entirely online. Large classes and lecturing—especially in the early years—are still prevalent, despite the ambient discourse on active and hyflex learning. In fact, the increase in online learning encourages larger class size, since it is possible to accommodate students in greater numbers virtually. When it comes to academic programming, there is a sustained demand in disciplines such as engineering or business. Responding to the pandemic, there is increased demand for health-related fields. The decline of the Arts continues, though it is possible to speculate that a floor is reached, providing for a new equilibrium and some stability. The trend in favour of experiential education continues, though it remains tightly focused on work placements and internships. Universities continue to rely on international enrolments, though enrolment growth slows due to increased competition—especially as university systems in Asia and elsewhere themselves become more attractive. In this scenario, universities remain too corporate for some and not flexible and creative enough for others. From this perspective, the pandemic has had an impact on universities, but it has not fundamentally altered the path on which the sector is already set.

The decline and collapse scenario proposes a bleak future for Canadian universities, one in which they become increasingly obsolete. Canadian universities are no longer competitive, despite their efforts to adapt. Canada is left with a few legacy institutions, and many universities are forced to close or merge to try and survive. Government funding largely dries up. Programs evolve to try to meet the needs of the labour market, though large private sector actors such as Google and Facebook now train students as early as high school to meet specific industry needs. Universities offer fewer diplomas and try to compete by partnering with industry in the development of micro-credentials. The Arts disappear almost completely. The use of technology in what remains of the university sector is rampant; teaching in the early years is largely done through proprietary AI-based teaching and tutoring bots. Industry experts are brought in to teach specialized upper-year courses. In this scenario, the lines are fully blurred between the private and the public. There is no neo-liberal university; the institution itself is a remnant of the past destroyed by market forces. The decline and collapse scenario reflects a broader shift in society in which academic knowledge and education are not valued and instead breed mistrust.

The golden age scenario promises a bright future for universities. The exact opposite of the decline and collapse scenario, universities are perceived as pivotal to society’s well-being. New funding from various sources, including government, is made available sustaining the creation of innovative programming and in support of research. Technology is used wisely in teaching and learning, and research, as well as to enhance further provision of services to students. To address society’s most pressing problems, great emphasis is placed on interdisciplinary education. Disciplines do not disappear and continue to be amply supported, including the Arts. However, the greatest contributions come from scholars and students that work across fields of inquiry. Universities meet students where they are, both on-campus and online, and provide them with the educational opportunities they expect and that allow them to succeed professionally and personally. Graduates become citizens of the world and are ready to lead for positive change. Universities are solidly anchored and responsive to their communities. Universities compete in a virtuous cycle that encourages knowledge creation and innovation. Institutions coordinate and collaborate whenever possible to enhance benefits to society. More and more, Canadian universities are recognized as global leaders. In the continuation scenario, universities strive for many of the same outcomes but fall short due to a lack of resources and various institutional and external obstacles. The golden age scenario represents a fragile equilibrium where changes must be carefully managed to ensure continued success.

The wildcard scenario presents a very different picture regarding the future of universities premised on the rapid acceleration of the data and algorithm revolution with significant impact and a partial to full reconfiguration of society. This scenario envisages a substantive reorganization of the university system. There are few universities, almost all private, and those that remain are quite prestigious. Knowledge and education are held in high esteem. A university education is only for the select few, though, and no longer for the masses. The university again becomes an institution of privilege where students are mentored until they are ready “to face the world.” The general population is trained for the labour market, but it does not take place in a university environment. Colleges and businesses entirely take over industry training for the masses. Universities are largely technology-free and the aim of an education is to reflect on the “good life” rather than on acquiring specific competencies and skills. The Arts are strongly favoured, as are some health-related disciplines, since they foster a more caring society. Much of the teaching, learning, and research in the STEM disciplines are transferred out of universities. This scenario may seem radical, but we are still in the early phases of the data and algorithm revolution and its impact is difficult to decipher. Whether the drivers go in the way sketched out, or in another direction, the revolution’s effects can be imagined as major, rapid, and dramatic.


This article has considered alternate futures for Canadian universities post-pandemic. For policymakers, practitioners, and scholars alike, this article should be read as an attempt to kick-start a conversation about the sector’s prospects beyond immediate policy considerations. This article began by asking whether there is agreement about what universities are for and the purpose they ought to serve going forward. The scenarios show plausible alternatives as a base for decision-making. What does the preferred future look like? Does the golden age scenario represent the best future? Constructing futures is also about avoiding outcomes that are less desirable. The decline and collapse and wildcard scenarios highlight the importance of decisions currently being made, especially regarding the adoption and use of technology in universities. A last point is worth highlighting: the impact of each scenario on faculty members (full-time or contract), staff, and students can easily be deduced in each scenario with potentially significant consequences for university communities. Decisions will directly affect the individuals that give universities meaning. Program closures and layoffs at Laurentian make for a vivid illustration of much that can go wrong. There is unlikely to emerge a consensus from a foresight-based conversation on the Canadian university of the future, but it is hard to imagine actors steering and rowing in the same direction without some form of shared understanding of a preferable future or set of outcomes. As we emerge from the pandemic, now is the right time, beyond slogans, to carefully craft the university of tomorrow.

Ian Roberge is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Glendon Campus, York University.