by John Brissenden
In September 2027, England’s first super-universities opened their doors to students. Of course, these doors were as much virtual as physical, since the majority of students studied entirely remotely, from around the world. But the defining feature of the four institutions, all privately owned and operated, was less to do with students, but the almost complete absence of academic staff.
The super-U’s (unrelated to the French supermarket chain of the same name) were announced by the government shortly after the Conservatives were re-elected in 2022. Construction of the massive, brand new campuses, in London, Bristol, Liverpool and Leeds, began in 2023 following a closed auction of bids from Pearson and Kaplan.
The function of the campus, like so much else in the super-U, was fundamentally different from that in the old, public sector institutions. It was still the centre of the university, but it was now wholly devoted to the objectives of branding, reputation, employer and brand partner access, and student experience. The new centres dwarfed the priapic rush of university construction projects that followed the 2012 tuition fee increase, and resembled a Dubai shopping mall more than a university.
The super-universities’ boundaries were porous, by design. Teaching delivery would now be much more flexible, thanks to the absence of awkward, unhealthy, grumpy academics. Classes were not only delivered remotely, but campus “events” were scheduled year round, at evenings and weekends. Employers and brand partners enjoyed extensive access to the campus, to the students, and to promotional opportunities. Buildings, programmes and students themselves had become the object of sponsorship on a grand scale. Branded satellite experiences had popped up in cities, and at festivals, around the world, months before the first admissions in 2027.
Most teachers were “employed” on Uber-type terms, while a few Premier League superstar teachers commanded massive remuneration as they toured these liberated institutions. Tuition fees were slightly lower than those charged in the old public sector universities, but not much, so as to sustain brand equity and shareholder value.
Students were issued a smartwatch and other high end hardware so as to enable the harvesting of data and the optimisation of satisfaction and achievement. The data was sold to interested third parties: loan providers, potential employers, brand partners. (The market in student data derivatives was still some years away.)
The universities claimed that they would be exponentially more responsive to students, since their satisfaction was now monitored in real time. However this responsiveness was in the aggregate. As before, the “student” in the “student experience” was imagined and based on data proxies. Actual, individual students had no greater status than Facebook users.
The arrival of the super university was the outcome of several disparate factors. There had been general agreement, following the United Kingdom’s messy and inconclusive withdrawal from the European Union in late 2018, and the subsequent vote for Scottish independence, that the higher education industry in England faced an existential crisis. Most administrative, and many junior academic, roles had become obsolete thanks to automation, artificial intelligence and regulatory reforms. Finally, the collapse of national collective bargaining, and the subsequent splintering of the academic staff union, while long predicted, had finally happened at just the right time for the government, university managers and private providers to drive through the mass redundancies on which the super universities’ business model would be predicated.
John Brissenden is Senior Lecturer in Public Relations at Bournemouth University