WISE – Can universities keep up with the future?

Can university leaders ensure that their institutions keep up with rapid changes in technology and shifts in local and global economies? The International Association of University Presidents, or IAUP, session at the WISE conference in Doha sparked considerable debate on whether universities can survive to serve ‘emerging generations’.

The fifth World Innovation Summit for Education – WISE – was held at the Qatar National Convention Centre from 29-31 October, on the theme of “Reinventing Education for Life”. It attracted more than 1,200 delegates from over 100 countries.

One of the questions in a survey carried out by the WISE conference was whether universities are in need of drastic changes to survive.

Some 84% of the participants – a broad cross-section of delegates including NGOs, business, academics and non-tertiary education participants – said yes, according to Alvaro Romo, a past IAUP secretary general from Mexico and current secretary general-elect, who moderated the IAUP session “Tertiary Education Leadership: Innovating into the future”.

“It is clear universities need to change to keep up. Our discussion focused on what kinds of truly innovative things universities can do and the unavoidable question of whether universities were lagging behind,” Romo told University World News after the session.

“If the university does not innovate, are MOOCs [massive open online courses] going to take over? Is the university going to be in danger?”

“The almost universal answer was, don’t panic,” said Romo. As Professor Andrew Hamilton, vice-chancellor of Oxford University said during the session, the university has survived other revolutions in the past and knows how to adapt.

New challenges

However, Romo said, it was acknowledged at the conference that university leaders “need to take a proactive role in facing the new challenges” of globalisation and technological advances.

Finding innovative ways of facing up to a changing environment not only applies to traditional functions of the university such as research and learning extension. “Even mobility programmes have to be innovative, because we are not reaching all of our students and all of them need international experience,” Romo said.

“One of the ideas in Japan is for more international mobility for students and professors,” said Toyoshi Satow, IAUP president elect and president of Oberlin University in Japan, who presided at the session. “We think it should be part of the whole Japanese higher education system,” he said.

Internationalisation, sometimes itself seen as an innovation, needs to move with the times and offer better opportunities – for example, “by offering internships in other countries, and other opportunities that are non-traditional”, Romo suggested.

This cannot be a one-way street with universities in richer countries sending students to emerging economies for work experience, but not providing visas for developing country students to do the same, except for the small minority who are doing jointly awarded degrees.

Some participants pointed out, however, that such opportunities for internships could exacerbate the brain drain from developing countries.

Relevance, differences

Ensuring that the university stays relevant often means a closer relationship with the employment market. Some delegates described how they have to forge really close relationships and are forced to keep up with the employers of their graduates.

Dr Gerald Reisinger, president of the Applied Sciences University of Upper Austria, explained that its curriculum had to be reviewed completely at least every five years with input from the business sector, students and faculty. If the university does not keep up to date, students do not have jobs, he said.

“Traditional universities will have to do the same thing. Even if they are not universities of the applied sciences they have to stay close to the realities of the communities and society around them,” Romo argued.

There are also differences between the developed and developing worlds, and the panel of IAUP presidents addressed how developing country universities can stay current in difficult economic circumstances.

Dr Elizabeth Davis-Russell, president of William VS Tubman University in Liberia, provided a number of examples of how the university coped with changes using international partnerships to help it move ahead. Alliances with community leaders and governments can also be helpful, she said.

Professors need to adapt and become more expert and experienced in using technology to their advantage, Romo said. Everyone agreed that faculty should really be adapting and changing their roles as technology constantly changes.

Preserve values and attitudes

But there are also some things that universities must preserve. There was some discussion on “learning to live”.

With the focus on technology and media, “some forget that there are other dimensions that we should be preserving, in the area of basic values and attitudes”, Romo said, summing up the discussion.

“The university has a responsibility to help preserve local values and traditions and cultures at the same time as they help in turning out the global citizen,” he said.