Back to the future – New directions for HE globally

In India, the future has arrived. The ABC – Academic Bank of Credit – has been created, where students can save credits from multiple universities and cash them in to obtain a degree.

New innovations and profound changes in higher education in a tumultuous era were debated at the triennial conference of the International Association of University Presidents last weekend. As in India, institutions must engage to shape the future or risk falling behind.

The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the world, including higher education, said Dr Francisco Marmolejo, president of higher education at the Qatar Foundation.

This article is part of a series on Recovery and Transformation with Innovation and Inclusion by University World News in partnership with the International Association of University Presidents. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

“But I see many universities just watching the movie,” he said. “Assuming that the next step is going to be that they reopen, just as they used to do in the old days,” he added, the question for university leaders from across the world is, where are you at?

“Are you waiting for the thunderstorm to blow over? Are you trying to emulate what others are doing? Or are you practically engaged in trying to address solutions?

“The questions may be confusing today, but those who are proactively engaging, trying to find answers in the midst of confusion, will come out in a better position to address opportunities and needs of the future,” said Marmolejo.

The XIX IAUP Triennial Conference, titled ‘Innovation and Inclusion: Key priorities for higher education in a post pandemic world’, was held virtually from 29 to 31 July 2021.

It was hosted in Mexico by Dr Fernando León García, president of CETYS University and of the IAUP.

Alongside 430 leaders from more than 40 countries and five continents were some 80 experts from across the world. In addition to general trends, there were special focuses on issues including innovation and technology, accreditation and quality assurance, internationalisation, inclusion, and leadership and governance.

The opening plenary session was on ‘Trends in Higher Education during the Pandemic and Post Pandemic’. Moderator Dr Arturo Cherbowski Lask, executive director of Santander Universidades, Mexico, said the pandemic had accelerated processes already under way in higher education. Which transformations were the most significant?

Fluidity and flexibility

“We all moved into virtual ways of being,” said Dr Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University in the United States. The most important transformation was the shift to online learning, which had been happening and was accelerated. Many institutions were resistant but had no option but to move their operations online.

While some would return to contact mode as quickly as possible, many others would make online learning part of their new repertoire.

“We will start to see old binaries fall away. One will be face-to-face versus online education. What we will have in future is fluidity. Students are going to demand the right modality on their terms when they need it. Today I want to be online, tomorrow I want to be on campus, the next day I want a hybrid.”

LeBlanc also highlighted the explosion in non-degree micro-credential offerings. “By one count, there are almost a million micro-credentials in the US market now,” he said.

There is accelerated focus on the intersection of higher education and the world of work, which is also going through dramatic disruptive change. Universities are not well built to be in that game.

“We already see a host of new providers in our ecosystem. It’s messy. We need a taxonomy. We need to make sense of the landscape – it is not going away. Market research in the US tells us that people want short-term, more affordable, laser-focused on high-demand skills, and a connection to a good job. That’s a global phenomenon.”

Marmolejo moved from fluidity to flexibility as a significant new factor for higher education. The Qatar Foundation took the opportunity of the COVID-19 pandemic to conduct a strategic analysis and develop flagship initiatives “related to the kind of future we see”. Some of what they found echoes LeBlanc’s forecast.

One very clear trend is in certification of skills beyond traditional skills certified in regular classrooms.

“The second one is what we refer to as ‘path for you’, which is much more empowerment to students in order for them to make decisions about their academic pathways, and for institutions to be reactive to that,” said Marmolejo.

A third change is a new general education. “A much more explicit effort to make sure that students are learning the kind of skills that are going to be needed for the future.”

Fourth: “We have seen a dangerous tradition of universities becoming isolated from previous levels of education.” Skills are acquired throughout education. Universities need to work far more effectively and responsibly with other education sectors.

A fifth key factor is equitable access to as well as retention and success in higher education.

For the profound challenges facing higher education “creativity is going to be fundamental”.

Equity and inclusion

Dr Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, highlighted the importance of equity.

“The pandemic has shown that higher education had tools and tactics for dealing with equitable access in the old world,” he said. Only some will work in the new world, and more are needed.

More fundamentally: “We are moving rapidly from a situation across the world in which we asked students to adapt themselves to the shape of a university or college, to the reverse, where we are expecting institutions to adapt themselves to the shape of the lives of the students they serve. That’s a profound mental and organisational shift, and it will affect policy as well.”

Secondly: “We have company. We have non-traditional providers who are very eager and perhaps better suited than we are as institutions to provide just-in-time, where you need it, in the right frame, for our students. I hope we don’t fight it.”

Universities need to work through institutional practices and accrediting systems and government policy to make it possible for micro-credentialled, out-of-college and work experiences. “Let's be flexible about multiple providers and multiple pathways,” he said.

Thirdly, Mitchell said, the pandemic demonstrated the global nature of higher education. Access for students should no longer be defined by national boundaries, but should “provide opportunities for students to get a rich intercultural international experience from wherever they are, whether that’s a small town in rural Kansas in the US or a major metropolis in South Asia”.

Dr Pankaj Mittal, secretary general of the Association of Indian Universities, described a traumatic year for universities and colleges. When COVID struck, “we thought everything was doomed”. But, slowly, teachers started moving online and universities started to transform.

She spoke of multiple divides in large, diverse India. Most prominent during the pandemic has been the digital divide, with some people having access to everything and others without even electricity. An enormous challenge was lack of capacity among lecturers and students to teach or learn online. Many capacity-building programmes were developed, among teachers especially.

The Indian government has been investing more in technology, including in devices for students and free internet connectivity. “Government also made TV channels available, so that, even if students did not have connectivity, they were able to watch content,” said Mittal.

Thirdly, universities saw the pandemic as an end to international collaboration. “But then we realised that international collaboration is increasing because it has become cost-effective and timely.”

For instance, it is easy to work with a foreign teacher online. “So then we understood that everything is possible online, except for social interactions, which we all miss.”

The death of the university?

There has been concern that the pandemic will mark the beginning of the death of the university. But the panel begged to disagree.

“For sure, the end of the university is not around,” said Francisco Marmolejo. “More than ever, universities have demonstrated that they are here to stay. The role of universities in the post-pandemic world will be crucial for the recovery.”

There are many problems associated with SARS-CoV-2 for which not only a medical solution is needed, and there are ramifications that need people with the right education to address. “There is a whole world of research in which universities should be engaged, in order to address the challenges and opportunities ahead,” he said.

However, the crisis has been a wake-up call for higher education globally. Universities need to think about what works and what no longer works; they must learn from the crisis or there will be “a terrible waste of opportunity”, Marmolejo said.

“We need to reinvent our universities in order to become more flexible organisations that will be needed for the future.”

Ted Mitchell worries that “transformations in universities will far outpace policy constraints that are bigger, higher walls than any university campus walls”. Universities need freedom and space to push forward, unfettered by obsolete policies and procedures.

“There has been a re-inspiration of creativity on campuses over the course of the pandemic. We sort of got through the tragedy and here we are. The impossible has become the imperative. If we can keep that spirit going, we will have very different – better and stronger – institutions.”

Pankaj Mittal believes brick-and-mortar universities will survive, and there will also be universities and lecturers in the cloud. Since the pandemic, she said: “I keep telling people, if you didn’t get admission to the best university in the world, don’t worry. The university professor will come to your home and teach you on your laptop at your convenient time.”

So a question for the future is how to learn outside the university, from many different people. And not just during university, but learning over a lifetime.

LeBlanc believes change is more systemic than institutional. Higher education’s ecosystem is changing dramatically. As with climate change, people can feel huge shifts and see change daily. “Yet it’s very hard to discern how this is going to play out,” he said.

“Every time ecosystem goes through a change, those who once thrived will struggle, those who struggled may start to thrive, and new players will come into the ecosystem. Think of invasive species. Some of them will actually improve things, some of them will make things worse.”

How universities fare in the new ecosystem will vary depending on the kind of university. Top research institutions will be fine, as there will always be a demand for their prestige and research. But some institutions will close.

“Students have a choice here. They are active agents and they’ll start to make different choices about where they get their education and what they want it to look like,” said LeBlanc.

The changing nature of skills and work

The world of work and its skills needs are changing, along with the relationship with higher education.

Credit for prior learning is essential, said Ted Mitchell, “not just to give students credit for what they have learned, but to signal to students that competencies will be the new name of the game”.

“We have used degrees as proxies for a bunch of competencies for centuries now, and we need to go into those degrees and ask what is it that you really learn? There is a way to translate back into competencies a lot of the degree work we do.

“At the same time, I think that there is an open opportunity for us to certify new kinds of learning and, in particular, new kinds of learning that are adjacent to the demands of the new workforce.

“We’ve talked about lifelong learning as long as I’ve been in the field. We’ve never done it. But it is compelling now. The jobs we are training people for today probably won’t exist in five years,” Mitchell continued. “We need to create an opportunity for students to be guides of their own education, through our institutions over the course of a lifetime, not just for a set period.”

Marmolejo spoke of the dangers of making assumptions about the future, many of which may be based on speculation rather than proper forecasting.

“When we have dialogue with the employer sector, we assume that the sector has the truth.” But when corporations describe the kind of graduates they will need, where is the evidence?

“We need to do much more work in understanding the needs of the future, and sustaining that with proper research in collaboration with the employer sector. We need to do this together.”

To Marmolejo, it is very clear that graduates of the future will need to be flexible in the way they learn, and have the curiosity to continue learning for the rest of their lives.

“The only thing we can be sure of is that the world is going to change in such a way that they will need to readapt, to become flexible, for the rest of their lives. This is not new. Many of us today work in activities for which we didn’t study.”

Mitchell agreed: “The bread and butter of what we do in higher education is to create critical thinkers, good communicators, people who are adaptable and curious and creative. There will always be a market for that.”

The value of higher education

One question from the audience was about how to defend the value of higher education, particularly among younger generations.

“We first need to look at what the next generation is about,” said Ted Mitchell. “The good news for me is that the coming generation is, above everything else, impatient. They are impatient with us, annoyed that we have so screwed up so many different things, or at least not fixed hem.

“They are impatient with institutions, which seem to say to them, come do higher education and then you can do life. They want nothing of that. They want to do life.

“If we can help them do their lives, then they are with us. If we can’t or if we say no, defer life while you have this coming-of-age experience, we’re just going to be ringing a bell that no one is listening to.”

Paul LeBlanc has been involved with research that looks at tomorrow’s learners – Generation Z. They have always had technology in their lives, they are never offline. “Essentially, they love learning, but they hate school,” he told the triennial.

“We are still overwhelmingly putting students in learning models that are antiquated and filtered and increasingly irrelevant; are often not responsive to the social, environmental and political questions that are so important to them.”

In the 20th century, said LeBlanc: “Higher education was part of the solution, the engine of social mobility in the US. But, for far too many students today, it is part of the problem.” Higher education saddles youngsters with inequitable debt, and looks like it is built for the privileged.

“I think we have an existential challenge to make ourselves newly relevant.

“In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, there is a racial reckoning that people are grappling with. In the wake of 6 January, when democracy feels so fragile, higher education has to be the one honest broker, sitting at the confluence of these things, engendering conversation, producing research, and helping educate young minds who are hungry for a better world.”

Arguably, one way of defending the value of higher education is to demonstrate to young people ways in which it is working to resolve problems and respond to their needs. Today, this includes enabling students to use credits from multiple sources towards qualifications.

University leaders were intrigued by India’s Academic Bank of Credit, created by the University Grants Commission, which sees academic credit as a currency to be deposited and redeemed. It will operate like a commercial bank, with services offered.

Academic credits will be awarded by universities or colleges, and once a threshold has been reached, they can be redeemed for a degree.

Mittal believes the ABC will make an important contribution to higher education inclusivity and flexibility.

“The inclusivity could be there, not in terms of getting admission to a particular institution, but getting admission to a particular course in the offline mode, online mode or blended mode.

“In future, Indian students will be able to design their own degrees, depending on their passion, what they want to learn rather than a ready-made solution that comes with a particular degree programme. So that kind of inclusivity and autonomy and flexibility is being given to students.”

In terms of equality of opportunities in higher education, Marmolejo said: “We have a significant bill to pay globally and this has been exacerbated by the pandemic.”

COVID-19 exposed limited opportunities for students outside – as well as those already inside – the system.

“Some numbers indicate that about 40% of students in the world were unable to continue education during the pandemic,” said Marmolejo.

“We assume that the 60% who continued with some kind of education have made it. That is not true. We need to recognise that there is a significant learning deficit happening that won’t disappear.”

This is likely to increase young people’s scepticism towards universities.

At the same time, rankings are badly influencing university behaviour. “Talk about higher education quality is explained by exclusivity rather than inclusivity. The more you reject students, the better you are as an institution. That’s total nonsense.”

Research has shown the additional earnings of graduates; that people with higher education value democracy, are tolerant and live longer and healthier lives, and so on. These statistics make the point about the need for more higher education.

“But, at the end of the day, what we are doing is preparing the new generation – individuals with curiosity, with an appetite to continue learning and to innovate. More important, citizens of the world, responsible citizens committed to the community and to the good. If we do that in universities, we are doing good work,” said Marmolejo. “If not, we are doing a terrible job.”

This article is part of a series published by University World News in partnership with the International Association of University Presidents. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.