Embrace lifelong learning or risk obsolescence, universities told

US university president tells THE summit that institutions need to ‘rethink’ their operations

April 4, 2019
Old computers

Higher education risks becoming obsolete if it does not fully embrace lifelong learning, the head of a leading US university has claimed.

Joseph Aoun, president of Northeastern University, told the Times Higher Education Innovation & Impact Summit that lifelong learners made up 74 per cent of learners in the US, and only 34 per cent of universities in the country “fill their seats”, but higher education has not yet incorporated lifelong learning as part of its core mission.

“We risk becoming obsolete if we don’t do it,” he warned, during a keynote address at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST).

Professor Aoun compared universities’ inaction to the railway industry in the US responding to the start of the “airline revolution” by saying, “this is not my problem, I am in the railway business”.

“They were in the transportation business and indeed their business was impacted by that,” he said. “Higher education is facing a similar situation. In many countries we have ageing populations, we have a need for lifelong learning, they are the majority and we have not incorporated lifelong learning as part of our core mission. It’s time to do it.”

Professor Aoun said that universities needed to “rethink” their operations to achieve this goal, including creating customised curricula for companies and individual adult learners who are “long on experience and short on time”, and creating certificates that are “stackable” as an alternative to degrees.

“Finally the delivery has to be done in such a way that it’s on demand,” including online learning and delivery within companies, he said, adding: “Lifelong learning is going to require us to become humble, to listen to the needs of society, of individuals, [and] of organisations.”

Lifelong learning was one of three elements that Professor Aoun urged universities to focus on. He also called for institutions to create curricula based on what he termed “humanics” – the integration of technological literacy, data literacy and human literacy – and said that this should be combined with experiential learning.

When asked how university leaders could create the impetus to enable these changes, Professor Aoun said that universities “operate based on a consensus model”, which meant that they were very slow to change.

But he said that if universities believed in academic freedom and a culture of experimentation and innovation, they should abandon this model and instead “let the early adopters be the pioneers” – and that others would follow this lead.

Professor Aoun also gave a scathing review of the way that liberal arts education has been taught in the US, claiming that it has been “divorced from anything concerning the world” and focused too heavily on “being theoretical”.


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