Universities around the world should share notes as they face the same challenges



In 2016 I had the privilege of visiting four leading universities abroad. At KU Leuven in Belgium, Oxford in the UK and two US institutions – Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley – I was exposed to new ideas and learned about novel approaches to higher education.

It was both interesting and reassuring to observe that these high ranking, well-funded institutions are not immune to some of the higher education challenges my own country, South Africa, is grappling with.

It’s clear that if universities work together they are more likely to find creative solutions to problems. Collaboration will allow universities to benefit from the global academic community’s collective wisdom.

These are the main lessons I took away from my travels.

Graduates for the future

Universities everywhere are struggling to produce enough graduates for the workforce while staying true to their fundamental purpose: educating for critical thinking and intellectual curiosity. The world is changing rapidly. Higher education institutions are struggling to keep up and stay relevant.

At the 2016 World Academic Summit in Berkeley, delegates were reminded that many current university students will find themselves in jobs that haven’t yet been created. Universities must think differently about what skills their students need to prepare for the future.

There’s strong consensus that a “fact-based, cookie-cutter” approach to education, typical of the industrial era, is no longer appropriate. The future will require a skills set that’s more suited to a fast-moving knowledge economy where the ability to find and use information will be critical. Connectivity, collaboration and the capacity to integrate knowledge are essential components of higher education in the 21st century. These skills are regarded as vital for promoting creativity and innovation.

An interdisciplinary ethos is also seen as important. This is being advanced at many leading institutions. They are creating interdepartmental laboratories, shared facilities and initiatives centred on addressing global problems. Integration between training in the science, engineering and technology fields and training in the humanities or social sciences is being encouraged at undergraduate level.

Notably, design and technology are being enthusiastically embraced in efforts to address some of the 21st century’s most urgent challenges. Adaptive learning technology and artificial intelligence are already being employed widely to enhance learning and teaching. But there’s also an awareness that technology alone will not provide all the solutions. Universities are recognising the need for 21st century citizens to reconnect with their humanity and reach beyond self interest.

Universities have a responsibility to promote this shift. They can do so by developing students’ capacity to show compassion and solidarity and be socially accountable change makers.

Access matters

Higher education is no longer the preserve of a few. Massification – the opening up of universities to many more students than ever before – is here to stay.

It’s, unfortunately, also true that poor outcomes have become a reality for many institutions. In the US, less than 50% of college students complete their degrees. And there are substantial differences in competency between graduates with similar tertiary qualifications.

Tackling the global problem of inequality in access to higher education is necessary. But it’s not sufficient. It’s equally important for universities to address inequalities in outcomes by giving attention to student retention, progression, success and destinations – careers.

A “lifecycle approach” involves supporting and tracking students through schooling and higher education to employment. This is regarded as essential for tackling outcome inequality. Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, the outgoing vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, mentioned in his presentation at the 2016 World Academic Summit that “equality of education starts at the age of 3”. This is why Cambridge decided to become the first university to establish a primary school.

Broadened access has consequences. One of these is increased diversity, which is unquestionably beneficial and desirable. This has been eloquently underscored by Dr Drew Faust, president of Harvard University:

Diversity, inclusion and belonging are fundamental to Harvard’s mission and to higher education’s broader promise … Bringing people together and creating a community of belonging is an extraordinary aspiration, and we must not lose sight of its potential to change a complex world too often fractured by difference. This, too, is education.

However, diversity can also be disruptive to the status quo. In a number of countries more diverse student bodies have drawn attention to the neglect of non-European values, traditions and concepts in their curricula. For example black students in the US and UK, like their counterparts in South Africa, have in recent years reported feeling alienated by the predominantly white image of the past, as reflected in university courses.

This has given rise to various “decolonise education” movements. Students and academics at various institutions around the world are now beginning to respond to these by pursuing change in university curricula.

Funding, equity and excellence

Some have expressed concern that widening access will negatively impact on institutional performance. But this is not necessarily the case. The University of California is widely regarded as one of the world’s most successful public higher education systems. It also has a strong track record of improving access to higher education for low-income families.

The university’s campuses, such as those in Berkeley, Los Angeles and San Diego, consistently rank in the top 50 universities in the world. Equity and excellence are indeed not mutually exclusive.

Higher education has been identified as a public good. Yet government funding of the sector is decreasing in many countries. This has resulted in higher tuition fees, barriers to higher education for the poor, students dropping out for financial reasons and spiralling student debt.

The issue of higher education funding has become a hot topic for debate around the world. No widely accepted solutions seem to have emerged so far.

One option that’s receiving considerable attention because of its potential to address inequality is “income-contingent loans”. In this approach governments pay tuition fees on behalf of students. These loans are then repaid through the tax system, on a percentage-of-income basis. Not all graduates are expected to repay their loans. For example, those who work for low pay and those who spend long periods outside the workforce may be exempted.

A strong theme surfacing in many discussions on university campuses is the critical importance of philanthropy as an adjunct to government funding. This is needed to ensure sustainability, promote equity and advance excellence.

Author Bio: Jimmy Volmink is Professor of Epidemiology and Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Stellenbosch University