We are very concerned about the consequences that covid-19 is causing in all areas, including higher education. It is understandable because the repercussions are important and will have great significance. But we must not lose perspective. Beyond the pandemic, Universities face decisive challenges that were already there when it began and to which it is convenient to give an urgent response.
In a recent colloquium we were asked about the characteristics that the ideal University of the future should have. The concept of ideal is somewhat theoretical and mobile since it changes permanently at the same time as the Universities do, always in search of its improvement. But there are essential ingredients and conditions in a quality University that aspires to excellence. Here I will offer you my reflections through a decalogue of proposals.
In short, we will need:
1st) A University that places students at the center of its work. Today’s students are digital natives, they are critical and demanding and act on recommendations. When assessing the strengths and weaknesses of an institution, they rely more on the opinion of other colleagues than on the rankings. On the other hand, they have a more active and participatory way of studying, supported by artificial intelligence and virtual reality, in which the teacher plays above all a facilitating role. If these characteristics are ignored, there is a danger of a lack of connection between the Universities and their users who end up losing interest in the classes and many of them abandoning their studies.
2nd) A deeply digitized University, which is not only a condition for 100% online institutions , but also for face-to-face ones. What’s more, this is a distinction that will tend to fade because most alma mater will be in-person, online, and hybrid at the same time. The common denominator of all of them will be the digitization of their teaching, research or management activities.
3rd) A University that investigates and knows how to transfer the results of this task. It is not necessary to insist on the idea that an institution of higher education is not a true university if it does not do research. Teaching is an essential activity because it trains professionals and citizens demanded by society, but advancing knowledge and disseminating it for the general use of its usefulness is a task that is part of the university DNA.
4th) A University to respond to the training needs requested by companies and institutions. Some professionals are less and less in demand and others who are not trained in sufficient quantity are more essential. Digitization is causing imbalances in the labor market, but its balance will be positive because it will create more jobs than it will suppress. Many of the future activities are unknown today, hence the importance of skills training and continuing education.
5º) An international university that means, among other things, having foreign students and professors and participating in teaching and research with foreign institutions. This condition is suitable for all universities, whether face-to-face, blended or online, and is compatible with their involvement in the affairs of the territory where they are located. The term glocal defines the double interest of serving the neighboring region and having an international projection. This makes Universities diverse and diversity is enriching and compatible with inclusiveness.
6th) A University with autonomy in the four essential dimensions: organizational, financial, academic and for the management of human resources. This includes an effective governance system in order to avoid patronage and promote agile administration.
7º) An increasingly specialized University. General universities can continue to make sense in certain contexts, where it is essential to train professionals to satisfy the multiple demands of the labor market. But Universities must tend to specialize in specific scientific fields or in multidisciplinary training, essential to face complex problems. The required quality of the offer demands this specialization.
8º) Universities connected with the business fabric through fluid communicating vessels in the fields of teaching, research, transfer and management. This relationship, perfectly assimilated by private universities, has certain difficulties in some sectors of the public universities that, wrongly, conceive this collaboration in terms of commercial subordination.
9º) Universities endowed with sufficient resources for the fulfillment of their functions. An essential necessity given the difficulties derived from the pandemic and the investments required by the digitization process. Private universities can suffer student losses, especially international ones, and reductions in contributions from companies. This will also affect public companies that may also experience cuts in state funding. This should not be the case because the post-covid economic recovery involves the essential role that well-trained professionals have to play.
10th) Universities that incorporate in their educational offer what I believe will be one of their essential teaching functions: continuous training in knowledge and skills. Collaboration with companies or the signing of individual agreements for permanent updating will be the vehicles to channel this growing activity, which will have a preferred way of delivery in the virtual modality.
Author Bio: Rafael Puyol is Professor of Human Geography. President of UNIR at UNIR – International University of La Rioja