Transformation asks us to move beyond modernisation agenda

Universities around the world need to challenge the so-called ‘modernisation agenda’ that has dominated so much in higher education over the last 30 years, with initiatives such as the European Bologna Process, and move beyond a language focusing on “the four ‘e’ words of employability, excellence, efficiency and entrepreneurship”.

That was the clear message from several keynote speakers at the opening session of the 16th General Conference of the International Association of Universities (IAU), held for the first time in the Republic of Ireland.

The conference, hosted by University College Dublin from 25 to 28 October 2022, attracted over 300 senior in-person delegates from higher education institutions representing the four corners of the world. University World News was the media partner for the event.

Beyond the modernisation agenda

The opening plenary session, titled “The transformative power of higher education”, heard Professor António Nóvoa, a former rector of the University of Lisbon, Portugal, and one of the key figures behind this year’s UNESCO report Reimagining our Futures Together: A new social contract for education, claim that while there were positive aspects of the Bologna Process and similar initiatives, many such projects were “based on a wrong idea of what universities are, or should be”.

Nóvoa, who chaired the research drafting committee of the UNESCO international commission on the futures of education, said the modernisation agenda was partly a response to the ‘massification’ of higher education in the 1990s.

However, he questioned the language developed around what he called the “four words beginning with ‘e’, which have been repeated ad nauseam in recent decades”.

Drawing on some of the conclusions in the UNESCO report on the futures of education, Nóvoa said: “We need to go beyond the modernisation agenda so we can strengthen the transformative power of universities.

Employability, excellence, efficiency and entrepreneurship

“Yes, we need to include employability, but we need a broad education, from a scientific and cultural point of view [and], above all, design new educational environments, new educational ecosystems, where we can educate together, with each other, where we can work together [and] build education together.”

He also suggested that “digital will never replace the human dimension that marks any educational and pedagogical relationship” and said: “A higher education just for employability would be a lost education.”

Turning to excellence, he urged university leaders not to forget the link between research and teaching and the importance of open science and citizen science, and warned against “hyper-specialisation” and “hyper-productivism”.

Nóvoa called for metrics and evaluation methods of universities and scholars that are “more diverse and plural, welcoming and valuing the difference, both between universities and within each university”.

He accepted that efficiency was important but cautioned against defining it just as “managerial efficiency and bringing in market rules and privatisation dynamics”, which had created “a powerful global higher education industry”.

Instead, he wanted to strengthen “the idea of the university as a place for participation, for citizenship”, building a “common humanity” and what he called “a convivial society” where “dialogue and plurality of voices” were encouraged.

“The UNESCO report defends the principle of education, and also of higher education, as a public and common good,” he said.

Finally, Nóvoa turned to the fourth ‘e’-word, entrepreneurship, and the encouragement of the transfer of technology and all kinds of start-ups, which, he warned, could also “legitimise extreme forms of precariousness of work” if care was not taken.

“The university’s service to society cannot be seen only from a technological or business point of view,” he told the conference, saying the UNESCO report called for “a new social contract for education, in which higher education plays a fundamental and critical role”.

“With 250 million students worldwide, that’s 250 million [people] that can make a difference to a more diverse, more plural world,” he argued.

The danger of letting the modernisation agenda drift without criticism was that it was making universities too similar to other institutions, “especially business ones”, which was harmful for universities, he said.

“The great ambition of the transformation agenda for universities is to stress their difference, [including] differences within each university, namely in the life and career of each professor and researcher,” said Nóvoa.

Education ‘cannot stand still’

Addressing the conference by video link, Stefania Giannini, assistant director-general for education at UNESCO, told the conference: “The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the vulnerability of education systems across the world and at the same time their capacity to innovate and adapt.”

She said the pandemic had also “set back progress across the Sustainable Development Goals, that remain, in and of themselves, the most transformative and ambitious agenda yet adopted by the international community”.

“Against this fragile and uncertain backdrop, we must hold firm to the principle that higher education is part of the right to education and a public good – and a strategic force to steer progress towards more sustainable, fair and inclusive societies.”

While she welcomed the greater “recognition of education and lifelong learning as a transformative force for individuals, economies and societies”, Giannini said education cannot stand still.

She said the Transforming Education Summit convened by the UN secretary-general last month had “elevated education on the political stage in an unprecedented way”. “For universities to fully play their role as institutions of learning, research and service to society, they must continue to democratise access and knowledge,” she added.

Giannini said it was “this spirit of transformation” that brought close to 2,000 participants from around 140 countries to the third World Higher Education Conference in Barcelona last May.

Together they “pushed traditional boundaries, bringing together academics, students, teachers, civil society, employers and others to chart a course for higher education in the decade ahead – a more inclusive and collaborative course oriented around the daunting challenges of sustainable development”.

The vision included six points for higher education to focus on:

• From exclusion to inclusion, with higher education part of the right to education and a common public good with all the implications this carries.

• From a discipline-oriented towards a holistic approach that encompasses academic, professional and citizenship dimensions.

• From a silos methodology to a transdisciplinary approach that encourages open dialogue between diverse perspectives.

• From a terminal, incremental approach to a lifelong learning model.

• From a hierarchical model – one size fits all within institutions – towards a flexible diversity-based model.

• From a content-based approach to a transformative one, putting technology at the service of effective teaching, learning and research.

Giannini told delegates to the IAU conference: “Universities need to go beyond disciplinary boundaries, diversify knowledge and expand partnerships.

“More than ever, we need both science and the humanities to strengthen democratic cultures, to nurture critical mindsets, to help students navigate complexity.

“More than ever, we need intellectual collaboration and solidarity – to expand higher education systems where they will be needed most in the decades ahead; to share knowledge and co-create solutions.”

In summary, Giannini said: “Higher education has an ethical and societal responsibility to open up to society, to foster an ecology of learning that nurtures civic engagement and to better connect research and policy for the common good.”

This article is published in partnership with the International Association of Universities. University World News is solely responsible for the content.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. Follow @DelaCour_Comms on Twitter. Nic also blogs at