The University of the Future: Round Table

A global summit was held on the Future of Universities, as part of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) Research Week 2016, 18-22 April 2016. On the 22nd of April, a 2.5 hour round table consisting of a panel of experts debating and discussing issues related to the University of the Future. The panel was open to students, researchers and academics at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya and other universities in Catalonia. The panel of experts consisted of:

  • Marta Aymerich, Vice President for Strategic Planning and Research, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Spain (Chairperson).
  • Martha Burkle, Knowledge and Learning Analytics, Information Technology and Learning Commons, Yukon College, Canada.
  • Alec Ian Gershberg, Chair of Urban Policy, Analysis and Management Programme, Milano School of Policy, The New School, United States.
  • María Antonia Huertas, Professor, Faculty of Computer Science, Multimedia and Telecommunications, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Spain.
  • Michael Power, Professor, Faculty of Education, University of Laval, Canada.
  • David White, Head of Technology Enhanced Learning, University of the Arts London, United Kingdom.

The following sections highlight my notes from the discussions:

Changes in the University Context

The context for universities has changed. There is now a wider group of stakeholders involved such as the local community, industry and global stakeholders. Universities face financial and funding issues. There are different business models emerging, those that are tuition driven and those that are non-tuition driven. Online learning has also opened new opportunities for flexible learning. There is also increasing diversity in learners, greater number of women, learners from working class backgrounds etc. Universities are no longer accessible only to a niche, but need to have universal access. In a competitive world, universities need to stay current and relevant.

Universities need to be able to negotiate a series of tensions, rather than solve a set of problems. These are long-term challenges that cannot be solved overnight. These tensions relate to student independence vs curricula to be taught, creative learners vs doing what they are told. Universities need to provide access to knowledge and skills. Universities provide private returns to individuals and public returns to societies.

Balancing Academic Needs and Workforce Needs

The role of academics is to promote critical thinking, filter information and conduct research. They also need to negotiate between competing needs. Faculties try to defend their territories as knowledge holders, while industry says graduates do not meet their needs. Universities need to respond to the needs of societies, but also question those needs or challenge those expectations. For example, the importance of long term needs of specific disciplines such as the arts, over short term funding constraints. The skills required from graduates are permanent long term lifelong learning skills (21st century skills). Our curricula need to be different to develop the skills the graduates will need for future careers.

The Increasing Importance of Transdisciplinary / Interdisciplinary Knowledge

Graduates are working in increasing knowledge-based societies. The nature of jobs and career paths are changing. Universities need to build bridges between pure knowledge and reality. Students require a depth of disciplinary knowledge and skills, but also a breadth of related disciplinary knowledge and skills. Thus there is a need for specialised and deep knowledge, but also more general knowledge. Research groups with interdisciplinary team members can reveal insights and provide different ways of working and learning. Often universities are hierarchical and work in disciplinary silos, but flexible interdisciplinary approaches are needed  to solve complex problems. There may be a shift needed away from traditional disciplines to new to cross-disciplines. Workforces are increasingly teamwork driven to accomplish set goals. Yet mostly student are tasked to work individually. Where there are team projects, these are still often assessed individually.

Changes Needed in Universities

We need to open up universities to the broader community and shift away from being content producers to providers of expertise. The meaning of a degree has been stretched to be useful to different stakeholders. But we need to rethink the value of qualifications and match them to student needs. Universities also operate in a global environment and need to be better at incorporating different cultural viewpoints. Universities can often reproduce social structures, but need to be able to change those social structures as well. The aim of universities should be to equip people to negotiate life with confidence.




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