What is a university? To Shelby Foote, the US novelist and Civil War historian, it was merely “a group of buildings gathered around a library”. To generations of students, it provided the best times of their lives. To many Nature readers, it is an employer. For Nature itself, many are customers. A university, to linguists, is a derivation of a Latin description of a community of teachers and scholars.

For more than 1,000 years, that crucial sense of community has endured. There is natural synergy between education — the transfer of knowledge — and research — the creation of knowledge. It makes sense for teachers and scholars to sit next to each other; better still, for them to be the same person.

Universities have always changed with the times. But there is a growing sense that the pace of that change is accelerating. More fundamentally, universities are losing control of the process. Change is being forced on them. The community of teachers and scholars will surely endure; it is too powerful to ignore. But the form that that community takes could change profoundly. Whatever a university looks like today, it seems certain that the universities of 2030 will look very different.

This special issue of Nature tackles the matter head-on. And it does so by reporting on several experiments taking place at universities across the world, which are examining new approaches to both teaching and scholarship. This is an international concern, and the model, funding and operation of universities vary considerably from country to country. That makes it difficult to generalize about possible solutions. But, to a greater or lesser extent, all universities are buffeted by external forces from the same three directions. Two of these have been gathering strength for decades, and the other is just getting under way.

First, universities are educating more people. Their original expansion just over a century ago saw them broaden from training the aristocracy in the classics to offering a range of professional schools for law, medicine and science. In recent decades, the expansion has been in the number and type of student. A series of welcome social changes has brought access to a university education to a larger and more diverse spectrum of people. This must all be paid for somehow.

Nature special: The university experiment

The second shift is out of the ivory tower. Universities are no longer viewed predominantly as places driven by curiosity and a thirst for knowledge. Instead, they are drivers of economic development. Success is defined by graduate employment. Research is problem-oriented. Scientists are budding entrepreneurs. Knowledge is included on the balance sheet, and policies are being introduced to produce the greatest return on investment.

The newest challenge is a reassessment of how learning and innovation happen, and how they should be delivered. From the rise of online tuition, such as massive open online courses (MOOCs), to shifting attitudes to the value of traditional one-to-many lectures, to the erosion of the classic lone-genius model of research, the very foundations of the centuries-old university concept are under attack as never before.

As discussed in this week’s collection of News Features and Comment articles (see page 287 and nature.com/universities), universities are finding their own ways to respond to these pressures. Appropriately, given the subject matter, there has been much academic thought and discussion about the direction that universities should take, and the possible pitfalls that lie along the way.

The very foundations of the centuries-old university concept are under attack as never before.

From publishing and sport to finance and retail, commentators are queuing up to find parallels between higher education and other sectors that have undergone rapid change driven by the rise of technology or by restless political and social circumstance. Consultants warn that spiralling costs will see many universities go bankrupt, and web zealots claim that there is no need for future physical meetings between teacher and pupil.

Ultimately, there are two possible universities of the future. There is the theoretical one: the institution devised in the abstract by selecting the most-innovative technologies and most-appealing ideas and packaging them together. This is the future of flying cars and Mars colonies. It may come to pass, but it is hard to see how. Then there is the university of the future that remains firmly rooted in the university of the present and the past; a place where students, teachers and scholars gather to share and seek information, and where both the information and the process that uncovers it have value.

Not all existing universities may have such a future. The present is moving too fast for a definitive idea about the practices and institutional structures they will need to survive. And so the only sensible strategy is for them to do what science has always done: experiment and see what works. As we show in these pages, that process is already under way.