One of the main missions of higher education is to prepare the young (but not exclusively them) for future challenges. It not only has the potential to change individual lives but it can also make the social fabric more resilient and adaptive. However, presently this future is highly uncertain and fraught with risks. This radical uncertainty makes it difficult to identify future-proof knowledge, skills and capacities. Moreover, it also raises questions about the possible roles higher education should play in future societies. We argue that higher education should be an active agent in shaping future society. In order to fulfil its potential as such, this type of agency-orientation should transcend its core activities, like research and teaching, currently built into its institutional settings. This special issue highlights certain possible directions for change as far as HEIs are concerned. These future possibilities are in relation to learning, ethics, fairness, community involvement and the role of research at institutions which were formerly teaching-oriented. These can be seen as first steps towards understanding what organisational changes are needed for HEIs to maintain their social relevance and to actively shape their environment.