Universities’ methods are stuck in the past, says Nesta chief

Universities are “overshadowed” by research and teaching methods dating back hundreds of years, stifling innovation, a conference has heard.

June 24, 2014

Geoff Mulgan, chief executive of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, said that although universities should to some extent act as “sanctuaries” of learning, more needed to be done to ensure that they remained relevant.

He told the Global Universities of the 21st Century event, part of the International Festival of Business in Liverpool, that research and development in universities was “overshadowed by disciplines from a century ago”, and that more could be done to develop new, more relevant approaches. 

Speaking to Times Higher Education – a media partner for the event – after his speech, Dr Mulgan said it was ironic that universities were so effective at analysing and assessing performance in a huge range of topics without sufficiently turning the spotlight on how they themselves operate.

“Universities are great at employing research and development techniques on all manner of subjects, but are not great at applying them to higher education,” he said. 

He gave massive open online courses as an example of where higher education institutions were producing a product that he claimed recreated many of the mistakes that have already been made in online education, suggesting that this meant there was a “lack of a feedback loop” within universities.

One way to address the issue would be the creation of a “what works” centre for higher education, he said. The government’s What Works Network already looks to establish evidence bases for six areas of public life including crime reduction and schools. “Do we need one for higher education?” Dr Mulgan asked.


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