Hubs of 21st-century life

Santiago Iñiguez outlines the ways in which universities must move to adapt to a changing world

May 21, 2009

Higher education is experiencing what is probably its greatest transformation since universities were first conceived. Even as it is reshaped by factors such as the convergence of knowledge, it is becoming truly globalised through the impact of information and communication technologies and the internationalisation of stakeholders - students, faculty and recruiters. It is also attracting many new players, including recently established universities such as ours. What will be the climate and the challenges faced by today's academic entrepreneurs, the founders of future universities and educational pioneers?

Wilhelm von Humboldt created the template for contemporary Western universities when he organised his Berlin-based institution into schools and departments based on areas of knowledge. Previously, academic disciplines were integrated and professors rarely specialised. The reforms inspired by Humboldt have led to unparalleled progress in research and knowledge. Recently, however, this extreme specialisation has come in for criticism because of its undesirable consequence: "silo syndrome", in which academics deal only with colleagues in their subject and students gain only a narrow perspective on knowledge. Universities can combat this by restoring the value of humanities in the tradition of American liberal arts colleges. Making humanities a core part of all degrees will cement the learning experience and develop open-minded and well-rounded graduates.

Management could also form an essential component of future degrees. Behind every good professional practice, there is good management, although we notice this only when things don't work. Doctors should be able to run hospitals efficiently and provide patients with quality care. Architects should be capable of completing projects on time and under budget. Indeed, good and sustainable management should permeate all new university offerings if we want our graduates, regardless of their degrees, to improve the world.

Of course, technologies play a key role in redefining higher education. New high-quality forms of online delivery - essentially different from classical distance learning - are paving the way for revolutionary learning experiences that allow students to combine study with internships abroad. These blended educational platforms, combining face-to-face and online formats, help students develop a wider range of interpersonal skills than can be cultivated in the classroom. They also foster interaction among fellow participants and with the lecturer, thus allowing closer monitoring of students' performance than conventional tutorials.

Students will demand not universities but "multiversities" - institutions that provide a diverse and cross-cultural learning environment that mirrors students' global career paths. Again, online education allows for the creation of very international classes and intense multicultural debate. Through online social networks, students today already deal with peers from different continents with almost the same ease and familiarity they share with their parents. Web-based cross-cultural educational offerings for a global audience can only help to reduce the potential for clashes of civilisations.

Cloud technologies open many possibilities, and here new universities may benefit from a fresh start. Universities can no longer claim to be the only reservoirs of knowledge, because knowledge nowadays emanates from many different places, inside and outside academia, and passes through multifarious channels on the internet. In the new multipolar world, universities will make their unique intellectual contributions by acting as hubs for the gathering and diffusion of ideas.

As institutions adapt, so must academics. Traditionally, professors were the masters in class and the guardians of knowledge. However, the new ways of education demand that faculty perform more as orchestrators and catalysts of learning. Some academics contemplate this with fear. They don't understand today's students and dream of an Arcadia that never existed. However, universities - old and new - are called on to reinvent education, and the good news is that the best is yet to come.

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