Can universities survive the digital age?

The fifth annual international IE University conference on “Reinventing Higher Education” discussed Bologna, English as the lingua franca and engagement between business and universities. But perhaps it will be the ‘digital natives’ of the next generation who will be higher education’s greatest challenge.

Robust debate on these issues took place from 20-21 October at the Madrid-based IE University, which is a private non-profit business owned by the Instituto de Empresa SL.

A vivid example of the technological challenges that many universities face appeared on the same day of the conference, in Spain’s national newspaper El Pais. The article illustrated the gap between the content of university courses and knowledge valued by the labour market:

“I was not taught digital marketing in my degree because the change in the business model was so rapid that the university did not have time to adapt,” said Cristina Rojas, 23, an economics graduate.

Rojas added that in 2013 Facebook and Twitter were only known as social networks, they had not developed their marketing potential online and “professors did not even know that they existed”.

She wanted to set up her own business but could not afford the €6,000 to €8,000 (US$7,500 to US$10,000) needed to take a digital masters. So she joined a free course organised by Google at Seville University and then established a company with the help of one of her teachers.

Google’s teaching staff and entrepreneurial experts are part of the public university programme Activate, which was established in March with the aim of improving the employability of young Spaniards and providing them with 2.0 tools and digital knowledge.

Google now has a presence on 23 campuses in Spain and offers five free online courses – in electronic trade, development of applications, cloud computing, data analysis and digital marketing.

Its pioneering work provided a fitting context to the IE conference’s debate on the next generation in higher education.

Staying relevant

“How can universities stay relevant when digital natives are part of the greatest generational divide ever?” asked Maria Eizaguirre, director of insights and strategy at IE University and session moderator.

“The problem is that education reacts slowly while digital is fast,” responded Emmanuel Davidenkoff, editor in chief at l’Etudiant in France.

“When Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov at chess, the Economist said: ‘If your job looks like chess, change your job’ – and that is correct right now. Higher education needs to focus on the part where humans can beat the machine.”

Ahmad Hasnah, executive vice-president and provost at Hamad bin Khalifa University, supported the view that ‘soft skills’ such as communication and good collaboration could be promoted more by universities.

“But how can we do this via the digital world?” he enquired. “It is a challenge when our kids are isolated, on their laptops in their bedrooms.”

“Students in the future will take their education from many different providers, and the problem in higher education is that we work in institutions that are perfectly adapted for environments that no longer exist,” said Hasnah.

Breaking silos, building knowledge

Dan LeClair, chief operating officer at AACSB – the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business – said: “Our business schools and engineering faculties are like silos and our financing is an opaque structure that does not help develop the right incentives.

“There is innovation but it is not diffused well because of the structures that we have created.”

To break the silo structure, Emmanuel Davidenkoff suggested, institutions needed to be more open and, for instance, include massive open online courses, or MOOCs, in their curricula.

Ahmad Hasnah then moved the debate onto the broader offer that students now have available. “We don’t want to offer boutique programmes where students have shallow knowledge in a lot of areas.

“It is true that doctors need to understand the social and economic aspects of their work, but it is important when designing courses to focus [on core skills] so that, for example, engineers don’t build buildings that are going to fall down.”

Hasnah’s final point – that education should not be two separate systems of school teachers and university lecturers – was picked up by Gillian Flaxman, head of school at the British Council.

“Students move fast, they want to speak three languages, change universities during their course and perhaps work for an employer in the Middle East, so I agree that we need to look at secondary education and higher education as a whole,” she said.

Meeting society’s needs

A different note was struck by Paul Zevenbergen, a member of the executive board of the Accreditation Organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders, when he argued that higher education systems have been remarkably successful in meeting society’s needs.

He gave the example of Leiden University, a classical university with very good standing in the Dutch education system that offers what many students want.

“We don’t know where society is going so let’s listen to students via their evaluation forms, and alumni, as well as the labour market, instead of trying to re-invent education. Let’s not overdo it,” he said.

A sobering retort was given by Davidenkoff, who provided the example of cab drivers who have suddenly been faced with a new digital model of ordering taxis that is threatening their jobs.

“What happens if a game changer like that comes along in higher education?” he asked. “Things could change very fast.”


Santiago Iñiguez, President of IE University, concluded: “The Millennial generation is creative, cosmopolitan, entrepreneurial, sociable, with a distinctive global awareness and commitment, and they demand more control over their own learning experience.

“The two major challenges for their educators, which may however turn into opportunities, are the impact of technologies in the learning process and the assessment of learners' alternative forms of intelligence.

“We need a new paradigm, and new mechanisms, to identify and address the educational needs of – to name a few – entrepreneurs, artists and visionaries.”