Universities in 2018: Riding trends to drive change

Globalisation, digitalisation and advanced knowledge-based economies, the three mega trends Professor Dr Maurits Van Rooijen discusses in this opinion piece, questioning universities positioning to serve the needs of the modern economy.  Opening doors to new opportunities and embracing new higher educational provision is the future of learning.

Staff pensions, student fees, even vice chancellor’s salaries capture the headlines.  Yet amongst all this excitement, we are at risk of ignoring the bigger issues.  The harsh truth is that most of our higher education is ill-positioned to serve the needs of the modern economy.  Deep down, universities recognise that their current approach to education is moribund, but the incentives to change are few.

Government funding is still heavily rooted in a dated approach to what the economy really needs.  Equally, very few employers are enlightened enough to fully comprehend the longer term economic needs in regard to their human resources.

Besides finance, availability of people with the right educational background is critical to business success, yet most employers happily leave education as a matter for taxpayers and fee-payers.  Many other external pressures (regulators, peer groups, popular rankings) are all heavily backward-looking, rather than driving the necessary modernisation.

Universities risk being marginalised, as they tend to operate in a separate time dimension. Older universities count time in decades, and younger institutions often share what looks like a rather relaxed attitude concerning the need for change and setting targets.  The mega-trends of our time are banging ever more loudly on university doors.  For the sake of brevity, I list the three main ones.

The first mega-trend has been documented for a long time: globalisation.  Rejected by populist politicians, hated by far-right nationalists and far-left socialists alike, nothing can stop it.  Despite political efforts to slow globalisation down, it will not be reversed. In fact, if managed properly, globalisation could be a force for good.

The good news is that most leading educational institutions are very open to being global operators.  They try to attract the best staff and students from across the world, engage in international research networks, offer their programmes abroad, and even operate campuses in various countries.  Many universities do feel a sense of urgency when it comes to globalisation – not in the least because their graduates’ success depends on it.

Universities are the most acceptable face of globalisation, and governments should be allowing them to open the borders freely to students, teachers, and even foreign institutions.  Oddly, the reality is different, with academic providers having to jump through impossibly high hurdles at times, to be a driving global force for good in education.

The second mega-trend is equally obvious, but an area that many universities are still reluctant to wholly embrace opportunities: digitalisation. Most universities approach this in an amateurish and sometimes even counterproductive manner, by putting a few traditional classroom courses online.  It is still beyond most universities to understand how online teaching enables a completely new approach to learner-focused, personalised, international, and interactive education.

Equally important is the digitalisation of student support systems.  These can enable a university that is serving a mass population to give each student the individual attention they deserve.

The overall lack of excitement about the various aspects of digitalisation, shows that the speed of development in this domain is still bypassing most educational institutions, which is a worrying disservice for students.

The third mega-trend is the shift from traditional agriculture, manufacturing, and trading economies (in which most of our universities typically have their roots) to advanced, knowledge-based economies.  This requires a very different approach to tertiary learning.

The concept of a 17-18-year-old going to university, and accumulating enough knowledge to last a lifetime during three or four years is, to put it mildly, archaic.  In an advanced knowledge-based economy, accumulation of knowledge is much more fluid.  Sure, there will be some demand for broad character-building campus education, but that will suit only a small minority.  Most will need professional education which is available ‘just in time’ during their professional life.

Much more effective and affordable than conventional education, and no doubt one day a much more common form of professional education, is a progression from work-integrated-learning to learning-integrated-work.

Initially, a young person might spend more time studying and accumulating knowledge.   Gradually the balance will shift, but the up-skilling, up-grading, and broadening of knowledge will never cease.  Being a student is not a time-constrained element of life- it is a requirement for success.  It is needed to remain professionally relevant, to progress in a career, and to trigger career changes.

It is clear that the mega trends in society pose a big opportunity.  This should create a real urgency for universities to reinvent their educational provision.  Frustratingly and worryingly, it is unlikely that the revolution in education will happen any time soon.  Then again, it only takes a few trendsetting universities to decide to embrace mega trends in society, by taking a proactive role, rather than resisting change, and then, many more will follow. So indeed, there is hope.

Professor Dr Maurits van Rooijen
Chief Academic Officer of Global University Systems (GUS), and Rector at London School of Business and Finance (LSBF)