We need an honest debate about how education should change

Universities are anxious to meet social priorities, but new demands must be properly resourced, say Jo Angouri and Jan Palmowski

June 15, 2021
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With Horizon Europe and the new Erasmus+ programmes launched, European Union commissioner Mariya Gabriel – whose portfolio covers both research and education – is keen to develop a strategic perspective for Europe’s universities. What should they look like by 2030? How can we ensure that they equip graduates with the skills they need for the future? And what role does the EU have in helping universities to flourish?

These questions are as important outside the EU as they are inside, and they echo debates involving national policymakers, foregrounding a strong discourse of change that is sweeping higher education. For example, the UK’s Skills for Jobs white paper, published in January, actively encourages universities to rethink and diversify their delivery models to facilitate lifelong learning.

The disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the need to rethink relationships among the sector, policymakers and industry. But the starting point for this discussion must be an acknowledgement that universities have served changing societal needs for centuries. At issue is not whether universities should change – but what changes universities need to embrace.

Higher education needs to deliver a lot to regional, national and international ecosystems. They must implement paradigmatic change in content and delivery of curricula and collaborate with the growing discourse of industry 4.0. Our graduates still need subject expertise but also a capacity to address problems across disciplines and contexts; they need to be enabled to upskill and reskill over a lifetime; and they need to be global citizens, accepting a responsibility for the common good.

In addressing these needs at a European level, the commission is no longer just focused on removing barriers to achieving a single market. It is also concerned with how citizens are prepared for that market and how they are enabled to embrace it in a fast-changing globalising world.

To maximise the opportunities for cross-border collaboration between universities, the commission is asking how degrees and regulation can be harmonised so that students can move more easily across campuses. How can we create more trust-based systems of quality assurance across borders, for instance?

This is closely related to the issue of lifelong learning. As universities face growing demand from learners at all ages, it remains an important ambition to develop a broader system of module recognition, so that courses taken at different levels in different universities closely relate to each other. But the push by policymakers for unbundling university credit and establishing micro-credits must be accompanied by a discussion of how these can be resourced in sustainable ways.  

Moreover, it is critical that universities develop micro-credits in ways that are appropriate to their distinctive missions. Learning that is future facing, research informed and coherent remains the priority. The recent report and update on micro-credentials by the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency, for instance, stresses that while micro-credentials are an opportunity for the sector, they should not come at the expense of the learner experience.

In embracing this opportunity, policymakers must understand that universities do not just give information – they educate. Providing holistic education in short formats remains a considerable pedagogic challenge. There are no quick fixes here.  

Finally, commission president Ursula von der Leyen is deeply committed to Europe’s digital transformation and the Green Deal (which aims to establish Europe as the first carbon-neutral continent). In response, the commission urges the integration of environmental sustainability into university curricula and wants to maximise the opportunities for digital learning methods. This raises deep questions around pedagogy and a need for redesigning curricula, beginning with a full appreciation of the many ways in which academic colleagues are already engaging with digital and environmental transformation in teaching and learning.

In fact, the pandemic has demonstrated the singular importance of in-person social learning, which will remain the mainstay of most universities. At the same time, universities must offer holistic solutions to the structural inequalities and systems of exclusion that were reinforced by the pandemic. This will enable students to benefit from all teaching modalities – online, face to face and blended – in actively applying their learning to address complex problems that span the local and the global.

It is hard to think of a time when the EU, including its heads of state, has shown such interest in the transformative potential of higher education. To nourish this commitment, it is important to lead an honest debate about how education needs to change. This demands an appreciation of what we already do so well. And, importantly, it also requires an understanding that universities must be sufficiently resourced to support societal change. Our societies are worth it.

Jo Angouri is academic director for education and internationalisation at the University of Warwick. She is lead author of a paper, “Reimagining Research-led Education in a Digital Age”, published by the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities last week. Jan Palmowski is secretary general of the guild and professor of modern history at Warwick.

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