Universities must think outside the box to embrace change

It is a constant refrain in higher education – students must be prepared for a future and jobs that may not necessarily be evident now. That’s why higher education needs to be innovative, and move away from relying on approaches that held good for decades.

But the majority of universities are unsure of how to go about this process.

“We are at a point where universities need to review what they are doing and look at what are the areas of opportunity that maybe have not been in the mainstream of the missions of higher education institutions and that we now need to engage in,” said Fernando León Garcia, president of the CETYS University system in Mexico, which hosted an International Seminar on Innovation in Higher Education at its campus in Mexicali from 18-20 September, organised as part of CETYS 55th Anniversary celebrations.

“It is imperative we try to see what changes and adaptations are required so we can improve our role, whether it is to focus on social responsibility, on economic development, on training professionals or accommodating all of these,” León told University World News.

But there is no formula for universities around the world, delegates from Latin America, North America, Europe and Asia heard. Innovation in higher education institutions must respond to local, regional and national changes, learning from other countries but finding their own solutions.

In particular, businesses need skills that they have not needed in the past and disruptive technologies are transforming the workplace, moving faster than businesses can adapt. So like it or not, universities must fill the gap, or economic development will suffer.

“As businesses are losing their capacity to train new employees and more advanced and diverse skills are required in various sectors, the demand for higher education to train students in a more specialised way is becoming extremely high,” Toyoshi Satow, chancellor of JF Oberlin University in Tokyo, Japan, and president of the International Association of University Presidents, told the conference.

Improving the human condition

Carlos Martinez Vela, vice-president of the Institute of the Americas at the University of California, San Diego in the US, spoke of an “existential tension” between the university preparing students for the economy and preparing them for society .

“Are we educating workers, or are we educating citizens? Are we working for the long-term well-being of society or for the short-term needs of a single company? These are some of the ways in which this tension is manifest. Often these tensions are seen as opposition to change, and in many cases this opposition to change should be there,” Martinez said.

A number of speakers stressed that in modernising and adopting innovative methods, universities should not lose their soul, their culture and their connection to the surrounding community.

“As much as we like to talk about technology and business, innovation is about people and it is a social process,” Martinez said. “It’s people who make things happen.”

“Innovation is a means to an end, it is not an end in itself. And we tend to forget that,” Martinez said. The ultimate aim “is to improve the human condition”.

Beginning to change

Innovation in higher education was very broad theme, León said. “It’s about how you teach, how you develop a person, and if you do it differently, that is also innovation.”

The seminar looked at the university’s mission and how it could respond better to the future, developing innovative ways of teaching and interacting with students, alternative models and technology, and internationalisation and partnerships with other sectors such as businesses and non-governmental organisations.

“When you bring together the university and these organisations you are able to go much further and be more innovative and be more creative,” León said.

The two-day seminar noted that universities were beginning to make progress in adapting – but perhaps not enough, and not fast enough. “To the extent that we are waiting for governments to do it, innovation in higher education has not started,” said León.

Innovative approaches can be as simple as promoting a broader outlook via international collaborations and student exchanges or better preparation for employment through work placements during the degree, which requires some restructuring of the degree curriculum. Or simply other ways of enabling students to choose the courses they want.

For example, Diego Mazo, president of CEIPA Business School in Colombia, pointed to the government of Colombia providing scholarships to students based on their national exam scores. The scholarship is tenable at any university they choose.

“It is one of the most important initiatives because students can choose where they want to study – in a public or private university,” he said, referring to a divide, in part an academic-vocational one, which he maintains has held back changes in the country’s higher education system.

Rita Hartung Cheng, president of Northern Arizona University in the United States, said the university had initiated a system where students paid a flat rate tuition fee and then the student could follow a personalised learning path freed from annual tuition fees.

“The student can go as fast or as slow as they please while the faculty serves as advisers and coaches,” she said, adding: “We learned a long time ago that no one size fits all students.”

Part of the community

But universities must also reach out to the community and not expect students to come to them, as in the past.

Social responsibility outreach by universities was becoming important in cities where communities were beginning to decay or were particularly affected by economic and social changes, the seminar heard. It also helped to break down the isolation of groups and improved access and inclusion.

Eda Machado de Souza, president of the Higher Education Institute of Brasilia, described how the institution built a large campus in a very poor area of Brazil and worked with the community on social exclusion and poverty. “We gave scholarships to all of them from that poor community because they could not afford to pay the tuition we were charging,” she said.

Her institution now hosts the UNESCO Chair on Emerging Social Challenges. In one project the university worked with city garbage collector unions to help garbage collectors earn more, including from recycling garbage and putting it to other uses.

Internationalisation was important for change, she said. “Students should have experience outside the country, with other cultures, with diversity, with new ways of thinking.”

Rita Hartung Cheng, Northern Arizona University president, said her institution teaches cohorts in rural areas, mainly degrees in education or nursing, and in several native American reservations.

“Our faculty are all over the Western part of the US advising tribes and governments on environmental quality issues, land management and forestry.

“What that means is that we are connected to these communities and we are looking for ways we can address the issues of the communities and prepare their students for the workforce,” she said, referring to formerly marginalised groups.

Devorah Lieberman, president of the University of La Verne, California, said many universities were successful but they also needed to be distinctive and relevant. The purpose of the university should be “to make their region better and to make everyone’s lives better”, she said, referring to the wider community.

Sharing ideas was part of being innovative, university leaders said.

Institutions needed to look outwards, both to their region and internationally, but they also needed to learn from each other, León said, “not to copy and paste, but to reflect on what works and adapting what’s appropriate.

“There is no point in looking inward only. It might be good but it is not as comprehensive and it will not be as far-reaching as when you look from a comparative perspective.”