How will universities survive in tomorrow’s world?

“I would like my university to have a presence in the first space station to Mars,” declared Santiago Iñiguez, president of IE University, Spain, projecting his university into the future.

He was the more ambitious of the four Ibero-American rectors that took part in the inaugural panel of the international conference, “Reinventing Higher Education: The university of the future”, held on the premises of Universidad del Desarrollo in Santiago, Chile, on 24-25 November.

During the two days, the participants discussed what universities should do to survive in a changing world where 10 years ago only one of the six largest companies in the world (Microsoft) was an information technology company; today five of those six are.

Another fact: the world is changing so rapidly that by 2200 it is estimated that five million jobs will be displaced by new technology.

There were many coincidences among the participants in the four panels that explored how universities should face these and other challenges, what human resources they would need and how to take advantage of the information society.

The most debated aspects related to the new profile of students and teachers and the sort of education that the new times will require.

Joaquín Guerra, vice-rector of innovation at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education in Mexico, one of the conference’s organisers, articulated the view of the majority when he said that the universities of the future will need a clear vision of where they want to go, that can only come from entrepreneurial leaders who are also ethical, socially responsible and law-abiding as well as prepared to take risks.

“Universities must carry out life-transforming research, focused on the problems of the community, industry and the public sector. They must develop leaders with a strategic bent and an international outlook,” he added.

Overhauling institutions

Carl Langebaek, academic vice-rector of the Universidad de los Andes, Colombia, spoke for the majority when he stated that the basic structure of universities, geared around specific disciplines, departments and faculties, is in a state of flux. “We must start to integrate degrees and themes that at first sight are non-related,” IE University’s María Eugenia Marín added.

The pyramidal structure of universities also needs to change. “We are becoming a more horizontal institution, less hierarchical, with open working spaces thought out for students, our stakeholders,” related Guerra.

On the same tack, Langebaek told colleagues that Universidad de los Andes was becoming faster moving and more flexible, facilitating students to shift from one discipline to another. “Our innovation and development section is constantly spurring us into asking ourselves why this, why that,” he said.

“Teaching and research must be done in interdisciplinary groups working towards a common objective,” remarked Federico Valdés, rector of the Universidad del Desarrollo.

Customised learning

A distinctive feature of the new universities emphasised at the conference is personalised learning, now possible due to new teaching methodologies and technologies.

“In five to 10 years artificial intelligence will allow us to customise what the student needs. One size fits all will be no more,” said Adrian Ali of Hewlett Packard Latin America. “Each student will go to university to learn what he or she wants, using his or her abilities and moving at his or her own pace."

Self-learning will require a new type of teacher, who no longer concentrates on imparting information, such as is still the case in most Latin American universities. This new role must be to stimulate his or her students, enamour them with the subject being taught.

“We need teachers who inspire, who are linked to the surroundings, are able to move in many settings, who handle education technologies and use them to do things better,” Guerra said.

The kind of professionals that universities must churn out was drawn out by several of the speakers. María Eugenia Marín, director of international relations of IE University, another of the organisers, said that today’s and tomorrow’s world requires critical thinkers.

Teachers and students must work together to find solutions to the problems of the real world. “What we need are students with the ability to face problems that do not yet exist today,” Guerra reflected. He spoke for many when he said that students need to be “life-long learners”.

They must also be able to adapt themselves to rapid change, to connect the dots, to master their disciplines, to be cosmopolitan citizens.

“We seek employees who are curious, well-trained technically but – and this is essential – who also have a broad culture and social interests. This combination is extremely rare,” said Oscar Landerretche, president of the board of Chile’s copper corporation, CODELCO, the world’s largest copper company.

A lot was said at the conference – the sixth edition, but the first to be held in Latin America – about the necessary link between universities and business.

“Critical to applied research is relating closely to external stakeholders connected with the market; university innovation and development must be an input to companies' innnovation,” said Carlos Simonsen, president of Brazil’s Getulio Vargas Foundation.

Langebaek added that universities must be more aggressive in seeking links with business, “something which most Latin American universities are no good at".

"The incentive system – now very much geared to the number of publications in top international journals – must also reward other factors such as collaboration with industry, academic involvement in public policies, in the education sector,” he said.

Closing the conference, Cristián Larroulet, postgraduate vice-rector of Universidad del Desarrollo, called on universities to provide more room for focused dialogues about topics of common interest which, he believed, achieve more than massive conferences.