From where I sit: Europe, the laboratory of ideas

June 17, 2010

Last month, my institution, IE University, held a one-day conference to debate some of the issues that will dominate the agenda of university managers and policymakers over the next decade. It was attended by 60 leaders from institutions worldwide, all ready to embrace change - quite remarkable for a sector where resistance to change is, sadly, a dominant force.

The event was the first in a series of annual conferences aimed at generating constructive debate on the future of higher education. The topics covered ranged from internationalisation to innovative learning methods, from university mergers to the key questions of funding and governance. We need leadership and vision at the helm of our academic institutions, and the overarching aim of this initiative is to contribute to that effort.

At the close of the conference, I concluded that the main concerns of most universities around the world are governance and financial sustainability. However, they also face the challenge of how to serve as catalysts for innovation and of becoming more accountable to society in a number of ways: ensuring that research is applied to development and innovation; strengthening links between university departments and companies; and aligning the relevance of education with graduates' careers.

Moreover, new technologies are reshaping the way knowledge is generated and distributed in terms of learning methodologies, delivery formats, even the role of the professor, and university managers should strive to find ways to leverage this.

Furthermore, a new type of student profile is emerging as the web generation brings new skills and attitudes into class. At the same time, continuous education is becoming a fast-growing segment for many universities.

Participants in the conference also stressed the importance of greater internationalisation. I see globalisation as having two main effects. One is the standardisation of programmes, content and degrees. The other is the upsurge of local idiosyncrasies and traditions. For example, today we see more programmes focused on cross-cultural issues and delivered in a growing number of languages.

Globalisation is fuelling the cross-border movement of students, faculty and knowledge, but at the same time more attention is being paid to the study of local issues, often referred to as "glocalisation", meaning that global and local are two sides of the same coin.

One of the topics that attracted the most attention was that of recent mergers, including the creation of Aalto University in Finland and Zhejiang University in China. Higher education is following the pattern of other global industries, with a concentration aimed at increasing size and competing more effectively on an international scale. We will see large for-profit conglomerates, mega-universities and unexpected mergers and alliances - all occurring in lockstep with rising competition.

To date, the industry has seen a growing number of strategic alliances, similar to those in the airline industry where legal restrictions, among other factors, prevent full-blown mergers.

Another phenomenon that came under analysis was the rise of for-profit education companies, particularly in the US, many of which are using the UK as a gateway to the new and attractive European higher education space. Interestingly, the conference heard that Europe is set to become the laboratory, battlefield and showcase for many new higher education projects over the next few years.

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