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Major changes in the world’s population of learners

The global world of higher education has been depicted for generations as a continuously expanding landscape, of campus-based places, where young people visit, reside, and interact.

The settings have been for young people to pursue study, experience rites of passage, and to learn, as pioneering emergent scholars and novice professionals, to set themselves up with knowledge, relationships, and memories to serve a lifetime.

The blueprints, visual imagery, and typecasting for delivering relevant experiences has been of young people bringing ever growing vibrancy and life to places where they have needed more space to learn and grow together.

What will our depictions and blueprints become, and how will we visualise and typecast higher education settings of the future, when there are far fewer young people on the planet and the vast majority of our learners are from an ageing population of lifelong learners. Welcome to the world of global population decline and declining birth rates and their impact on a future of higher education.

Japan and parts of Europe including Italy, Germany and Spain, have been the first societies to experience what has become a global phenomenon, now even more pronounced in South Korea and Thailand, of rapidly declining birth rates.

These are leading to inevitable and catastrophic future population decline and population ageing. For the past fifteen years there have been an average of two schools a day closing in Japan because of the declining number of school age children.

Births in China have fallen by 40 per cent in less than a decade, while even India has seen births fall by over 10 per cent in the same timeframe.

But even in Australia, and in common with every country in the world now, other than currently in Sub-Saharan Africa, the clear trend is towards a gap between the number of newly born people and those of older ages in need of support from them.

Other than parts of Africa, It is unavoidable that between 20-40 years from now, eligible school leaver populations globally will decline rapidly and that regardless of participation rates, and unsolvable by migration, school leaver numbers eligible to participate in higher education will collapse.

In many nations like Japan the impact is already being felt by universities.

For most nations there will be a lag before the impact is felt, and by only focusing on Costello baby boom trends, or demographic projections for the next 10 years, university marketing departments and academic portfolios will remain ignorant of how things will change.

This blind spot we are all suffering from is only because we are standing too close to the current data.

At the same time, the ageing population, who will live longer because of health advances, will become unsupported by absent younger families.

They will live, work and have to learn longer, through that necessity of loneliness, combined with exposure to ever faster advances in knowledge, technology and the nature of work.

We have the inevitable structural adjustment in front of us of the collapse of a school leaver population and explosion in numbers and needs of lifelong learners.

This phenomenon is occurring because social conditions for men and women are trending towards a greater proportion of all populations experiencing unplanned childlessness.

This occurs as women understandably focus their 20s on education, training, career development, and lifestyle experiences, in a climate of declining hope for the future and increasing financial challenge.

Meanwhile men are increasingly rejecting school leaver study during lucrative workforce shortages that will only deepen, and experience increasing social isolation leading to their increasing self-absence from future family commitments.

To some extent the great successes of the increasing switch of university education to have become female dominated, and career settings that require career foundations to be advanced in our 20s and 30s, have added to an environment where we are all falling away from having population-maintaining birth rates.

This is a fundamental structural shift in the landscape and demographics of higher education that will now inevitably occur within a lifetime.

It presents extraordinary need and opportunity for higher education to reposition and adjust the prevailing paradigm and dominant student persona from an 18–21-year-old school leaver on a vibrant campus, to a 35-60 year old lifelong learner juggling continuous career disruption and career lengthening, while experiencing unplanned childlessness and the need to care for ageing families.

The adjustments universities will have to make to this seismic shift in student and learner profiles will be profound. It will impact on campus experience, learning technology, curricula design and form, and learner experience processes.

The universities that catch on to the nature, extent and ultimate direction of this change quickly enough have a huge advantage to gain in repositioning, re-equipping and re-designing curricula, learning experience and facilities to deliver what the next generation of lifelong learners need.

The losers will be those that fail to see the ground moving in front of them and cling on to some romantic notions of campuses full of vibrant young groups of learners like those they can remember from their past.

Naturally not everyone chooses to have children, but for those who do plan to have a family, society needs a transformative approach to integrate education, careers, and parenthood.

This requires reimagining timelines, overcoming barriers, and promoting inclusivity. Flexible work arrangements, comprehensive childcare support, and a culture valuing work-life balance are vital.

We must address this collectively, promoting lifelong learning and creating a more family and child-centric world.

In doing so, people can pursue their educational and career aspirations while actively participating in the upbringing of their children, creating a more balanced and fulfilling lifestyle for all.

Rather than this being a “women’s problem” we have an urgent need to make this everyone’s problem to address in a cohesive way that advances everyone through lifelong learning and creating a world with children.

It is certainly a universities problem and one that we have a significant role in addressing alongside others.

As HEDx and we are developing a shared purpose to inform, facilitate and manage this transition in how the world’s higher education systems will adjust.

We see sharing data on the specifics of the rate at which population collapse and ageing will occur, in particular geographical locations, as a starting point to that. And we see the development of strategies to transition to lifelong learning as a dominant paradigm, with the curricula, pedagogy and learning technologies and business models that go with them, as critical to embrace by higher education institutions in transition.

The higher education sector, along with all others, is currently very focussed on the near horizon of the impact of the revolutionary emergence of generative AI as a technology that will both change current careers substantially and require far fewer workers.

That is just as well because we are going to have far fewer young graduates and workers much sooner than we all realise.

We can influence the rate at which this happens at the margins by revisiting the current model and assumptions that all people learn and start careers in their 20s and 30s and retire in their 50s and 60s. We over-optimistically assume they are fitting in having families whenever they can. They increasingly cannot.

The sustainable future model will need to be universities and employers developing much greater flexibility towards nuanced, diverse and personalised patterns of lifelong learning, multiple career development, and the centrality of having families and caring for elders. In a sector driven by purpose, a contribution of great impact, is one that innovative and creative architects of a future model of lifelong learning now need to design. We all depend upon it.

First published in Campus Review on 29th May 2023.
Emeritus Professor Martin Betts, Co-Founder of HEDx
Professor Selena Bartlett, Queensland University of Technology
Stephen Shaw, Founder of