University for its own sake: Imagining the future of learning in an automated utopia

Is university really preparing us for a post-automation future? Or are we just attending degree factories?

I used to think about university in a very narrow way: get in there, get the degree done, and then go out into the world and make it happen. This is an approach that is often encouraged, even required. International students must maintain full-time study loads, for example, essentially forcing them to power through a degree.

Domestic and international students alike often juggle full-time loads and work, forcing them to power through even more efficiently. Here at ANU, our semesters have been shortened a week, adding yet more time pressure to the learning environment. For these and other reasons, it’s often difficult to see university as little more than an obstacle course, and one that must be navigated in the fastest, most effective manner possible.

Fast-paced learning isn’t always bad, of course. Like many others, our university offers intensive courses taught over as little as two or three weeks. Sometimes this approach – diving deep and running fast – can work well. But recently I started wondering: What if we slowed all this down? And from that idea came another: What if we had to? Or even better, what if we were free to?

University in a post-automation society

For the sake of argument, suspend your beliefs and imagine a future that some predict is coming, where artificial intelligence allows for the automation of a wide range of jobs, essentially replacing huge sections of the workforce with machines, computers, and software. In this future there are far less jobs that humans can apply for. Although innovations in AI have created entirely new professions, these are far less in number, and require far less humans compared to the jobs they replaced. Despite this, these new economies still generate immense value, often greater than the economies they replaced, even despite the fact they had larger workforces.

In this scenario, automation has made us richer but largely unemployable, an outcome that demands a fundamental rethink of our economy. Without a means to support themselves and through no fault of their own, billions of people are now threatened. As a response to the shrinking jobs market, the governments of the world fill the role traditionally assumed by the employer and provide a Universal Basic Income (UBI): a liveable wage given to all citizens simply for existing. It’s the job interview you ace by simply breathing. Neat, huh?

“Universal Basic Income (UBI): a liveable wage given to all citizens simply for existing. It’s the job interview you ace by simply breathing.”

Everything in this scenario so far is well-trodden ground. There are countless oceans of ink spilled about UBI, about automation and employment, and about the interactions between these ideas. What interests me is the role of the university and education more broadly in a society like this. A basic income represents a potential solution to the economic challenges of automation, but what about the educational challenges?

The modern university – sometimes derisively called a “degree factory” – is often highly focused on a model of vocational training: churning out graduates that can go out into the economy, find a career, create value, and contribute to society. In a post-automation scenario, the “career” part of that equation is fundamentally altered. Everyone has a baseline, default career already: Human. This career pays well enough that there’s far less pressure to find a paying job, and there’s far fewer paying jobs out there anyway. The motivations for being a student in this kind of society would be different from they are today. Just as they would be for being a teacher.

In this kind of scenario, where people are more financially liberated and able to pursue their own interests, I believe we’d still have academia. In fact, I think the field of education – studying and teaching – could enter something of a golden age. The invention of machinery freed our muscles from physical labour, and the invention of computers freed our minds from intellectual labour. The difference this time, is that automation greatly amplifies the intellectual freedom that computers have already given us – what the industrial revolution did for muscle power, automation will do for brain power.

Here’s the thing: we still enjoy both physical and mental labour intrinsically. We play sports, we tend to gardens, we go on walks and jogs and climbing mountains. We create works of art and literature, build monuments of grandeur and beauty. We use science and math to sate our endless curiosity and inquisitiveness. We take pride and delight in our discoveries and the sharing of them. We are a species that loves to work, to create, to explore, and to teach. In a sense, there can never be zero jobs because will always keep ourselves busy. In the automation age, our heightened freedom from intellectual drudgery means the role of the explorer, the creator, and the teacher may very well flourish. We enjoy these things regardless of their economic value, and it just so happens that they create a lot of it anyhow.

“If universities don’t exist to train us for careers, what is their point? The answer overlaps with our own very human desires: universities will exist to explore, to teach, to create – even if just for its own sake

Another way to think of this is to ask the question: If universities don’t exist to train us for careers, what is their point? The answer overlaps with our own very human desires: universities will exist to explore, to teach, to create – even if just for its own sake, and not because it has some clear economic value or job outcome. Think about how often a given course or topic can’t be taught for economic reasons: we can’t afford the lecturer, and job-seeking students can’t afford to be taught it unless it advances a career. These things could change in a post-automation society. There may be greater freedom to learn and teach, broadening what universities offer. A “Cambrian explosion of ideas” might be just around the corner.

The universities of the future may end up more closely resembling those of antiquity, where scholarly pursuit was undertaken for arguably grander reasons than just paying the bills. Throughout history, the function and role of a university has morphed and changed, but this modern preoccupation with vocation and careers-training is perhaps unique in its zeal. It’s an arguable outcome, and a debatable point – but perhaps the reduction of available careers is a blessing for universities, a development that allows them to return to their roots.

Redistributing the wealth of time

To repeat the opening line of this article: I used to think about university in a very narrow way: get in there, get the degree done, and then go out into the world and make it happen. Since then I’ve slowed down, sometimes even taking a whole semester off. I study sustainability which can be a difficult and trying subject at times: climate change, economic inequality, and social injustice are big challenges. Aside from just needing a break from studying these issues, I also wish sometimes I had the freedom to do something about it now. Taking a break from coursework, and even just reducing the workload, allows me to do that.

Slowing down means I can read and study what I care about – instead of what’s mandated by a given course. I can write articles like this, instead of essays on assessment topics. I can volunteer my time to projects and community organizations. I can attend events, seminars, and workshops. I have time to network with people, make new relationships, and learn new things. I have time, in other words, to apply what I’m learning, and in doing so enhance the meaning and relevance of my formal studies.

I can’t go at a slow pace forever, of course, but being able to do it all reveals many privileges, financial and otherwise. Reflecting on that privilege makes me wonder what happens when everyone shares it – when we redistribute not just economic wealth, but the “wealth of time”. There are surely others like me who, if they could afford it, would take a far slower approach to their time at university. If I could, I’d spend a decade here at ANU, shifting my focus between formal studies and practical applications of them as my mood dictated. I would love to be free to focus on mastering individual subjects, rather than cramming as many as possible into the tightest schedule I can manage.

Back to reality: A utopia for realists

Of course, one problem with trying to predict or even just imagine the future is that you’re inevitably going to get a few things wrong: our hopes and fears, our biases and interests, they will inevitably taint an already imperfect process. The uncertainty of the future is no excuse, however, to pass up a chance to have a serious discussion about the challenges and opportunities that imagining it bring to light.

An idea like the UBI may seem fanciful, but that’s because we are naturally set in our ways and resistant to change. The reality is that it’s grounded in a great deal of evidence-based studies undertaken throughout history and across the world, many which show it can work. The reality is that several countries around the world are testing the model right now on small scales. The reality is that even the hyper-capitalist, anti-welfare America once toyed with the idea of a UBI under Nixon and came amazingly close to implementing it. If you want to shout down utopian ideas under the guise of being a “realist” about the future, then you should first make sure how well-informed you are about this “reality” thing.

The same goes for automation: it may seem to be too abstract, or an over-hyped threat, but it’s worth contemplating scenarios in which it causes disruption, and how we might respond. It alarms me how little my fellow students at university consider automation, especially given the potential threats it poses to their future employability. Threats are just one side of the coin however; there are opportunities too for new futures, like the UBI-led golden age of academia I describe. As someone who has studied automation closely, I’m often struck by how focused the media is on the threats it poses – and how little, by comparison, we consider the potential opportunities ahead.

“Be a realist, sure, but don’t let that get in the way of you being a utopian thinker too – these aren’t fundamentally incompatible stances. Right now, the world could use a lot more positive thinking.

So, this is the challenge I set to you: Don’t be dismissive of these ideas, or other ideas about the future you might come across. Imagining a better future requires, well, imagination. Be a realist, sure, but don’t let that get in the way of you being a utopian thinker too – these aren’t fundamentally incompatible stances. Right now, the world could use a lot more positive thinking.

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