How is the student of the future being shaped by events today? What will higher education need to do in order to adapt to global challenges such as climate change, geopolitical instability, increased migration and emerging technologies? And against a background of unprecedented change, what skills are critical for universities to instil in their student populations?
Some of these complex issues were at the heart of the debate during the recent Student of the Future Symposium events, hosted by Universitas 21. Hearing from a panel including senior academics, current student body representation and a Higher Education trends specialist, some common key themes quickly emerged.
The importance of safeguarding academic integrity in the face of technological development was identified as a critical issue. With the Covid-19 global pandemic, higher education as a sector showed that it could be agile and responsive. New technologies and initiatives quickly sprang up to drive digital learning environments when physical participation was no longer possible.
The panel stated that it is hugely important to retain the benefits and advances accelerated in this time, but equally to balance this provision with face-to-face interaction, which has so many benefits for fostering connection and creating a sense of common purpose.
Those two things are pivotal both to addressing the crisis in young people’s mental health and in coming together across borders in the type of massive collaboration that is key to combatting the very global challenges around sustainability facing the world.
At the same time, considering the ‘end users’ of education will be important. This can mean both the students themselves but also employers. Students are driving a greater degree of flexibility in the way that education is consumed – perhaps requiring more time to explore generalist higher education themes before specialising their field. Here we could see a taste of the future in innovations such as those offered by National University of Singapore, who now offer ‘credit’ for lifelong learning to those who undertake a degree course.
Employers equally want future workers who are well versed in continual development in order to keep up with successive developments in technology and industry. This has already led to partnerships such as those seen with the electric car manufacturer Tesla partnering with 10 U.S colleges to create course content. So where is the convergence point of these two interests?
The U21 panel felt strongly that universities have an amplified role to play in producing critical thinkers. With the echo chamber effect of algorithm and social media-driven online worlds, the values of being evidence-based and evaluative are ones that universities must absolutely emphasise. There is also a role to play in cross-border collaboration and knowledge transfer.
Decoupling geography from politics and leading the way in intellectual collaboration and co-operation will be central both to supporting the next generation as they work to address the wicked problems of climate change and the impact of advancing technologies on society.
We are likely to see the continued emergence of universities having a presence in the metaverse – as seen in the recent partnering of Harvard University and Facebook – and ‘superstar’ teachers who use platforms such as TEDx and YouTube to grow immense global followings. This could also offer a partial solution to the problems of accessibility and affordability.
Could the future involve ‘unbundled’ degrees that consist more of micro-credentials taken at varying pace? The panel felt that although there have been huge advances made in recent years such as the U21 GEEFs launched as a response to the pandemic – there are still significant barriers around systems and accreditation to be resolved in order to refine a truly flexible and global offering.
Forming more equitable partnerships was a key issue identified in aiming for a truly globally inclusive curriculum. Being open to discussions that could be perceived as problematic, investing in new educational technologies and embedding sustainable development as a key part of each institutions’ targets were identified as issues of high importance.
Ultimately, retaining agility, keeping the best of the traditional models while welcoming the right technological innovations, keeping the academic integrity that both students and employers value, and always striving to represent cross-border collaboration and the formation of critical thinking will help universities – and the students who people them – survive and thrive into the next century.
Student of the Future Panel
Rachel Sandison – Deputy Vice-Chancellor, University of Glasgow
Jim Tudor - Founder, The Future Index
Joanne Wright – Deputy Vice-Chancellor, University of Sydney
Gonzalo Pizarro – Dean of Undergraduate Studies, UC Chile
Annelies Raes – Tenure Track Professor, KU Leuven
Marie Clarke – Director, Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University College Dublin
Vincent Shoutao Wu - Postgraduate Student, Shanghai Jiao Tong University