Universities in emerging economies deserve a new kind of leadership

Tackling global problems requires visionary leadership and fast, proactive and flexible decision-making, says Getachew Engida

October 18, 2021
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Today, there can be no higher priority for universities than providing quality education and lifelong learning. This is essential for all our efforts to achieve the internationally agreed United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The education goal (SDG 4) is an ambitious and unified vision: “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”.

Education is not just about learning to read and write. It is about learning values; it is about promoting social cohesion.

It is about teaching the skills and behaviours all societies need today and tomorrow, to address climate change, to eradicate poverty, to control pandemics such as Covid-19 and to promote inclusive and equitable societies. Education has the transformative power for living together, for critical thinking, for creativity.

To succeed, we need strong mechanisms to monitor progress, to promote accountability, to identify emerging trends and challenges at all levels of education.

Higher education institutions in emerging countries play a critical role in knowledge and its creation, in building human capital fundamental to their growth, and in forging the path to generating solutions to fight poverty and insecurity.

We are at a time in history when the landscape of higher education is undergoing unprecedented transformation. There is the pressure of huge demand, with increasing enrolment of students. But there is also rising student mobility from emerging countries for multiple reasons – from lack of facilities or subject specialisation to displacement caused by conflict.

Emerging countries need to build strong higher education systems that are geared to innovate and to respond to economic, environmental and social challenges.

This calls for innovative and interdisciplinary study programmes, creative and collaborative research agendas and professional training, and better connections between research and policy.

We must re-examine the purpose of education and learning. The current education system is by and large the same as when it was first established during the First Industrial Revolution. It is a system designed to meet the labour requirement of the production system. The system then was relatively stable, and changes were incremental and manageable.

While humanity has made tremendous progress since then, we currently confront unprecedented challenges. We live in an era of environmental crisis, faced with climate change, freshwater stress, changes in ocean chemistry, loss of biodiversity and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Of course, all is not gloom and doom. We have lifted millions of people out of poverty. Experience shows that there is no stronger, no more lasting investment a country can make than educating its citizens.

Achieving the SDGs calls for political will, for dynamic and innovative partnerships as well as visionary leadership. In such turbulent times, clear-sighted leadership with fast, proactive and flexible decision-making and open communication with empathy will save us from the abyss. A culture of innovation in all aspects of the education systems’ infrastructure, including ICT use, is imperative.

Education leaders have the dual tasks of leading through the current crisis as well as charting a road map for a better and stronger learning environment for the post-pandemic area. Education leaders must appreciate that they operate in a unique environment. In this environment, leaders of education institutions cannot run and succeed with the traditional command-and-control system. Even before the pandemic, entire education systems were challenged for their relevance and usefulness. In a fast, technology-driven changing environment, they were not adjusting as quickly as they should.

The Covid pandemic has aggravated the situation. Change is imperative. The status quo is not an option. Leaders of education systems need to articulate a clear vision for the future of education and put it into practice with a continuous improvement culture built into it. They need to harness ICT, including artificial intelligence, machine learning and virtual reality, to improve access and quality education. Leaders must work strategically with the private sector to deliver on their objectives of accessible and quality learning outcomes. They must be fast, resilient and agile.

It’s time to reinvent the future of education fit for the 21st century with SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound) objectives. The higher education institutions of emerging countries need and deserve enlightened and visionary leaders.

Getachew Engida is distinguished visiting professor of leadership at Tsinghua University and former deputy director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).

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