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Higher education is at a critical juncture. What we choose to do next will shape the lives of generations to come.

Written by Professor Jason Blackstock and Florence Robson


 

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This article draws on the discussions and insights of a series of five roundtable discussions that How to Change the World organised in partnership with Times Higher Education (THE) and the Global Business School Network across April and May 2024, in the run up to THE’s Global Sustainable Development Congress 2024.


All of the great ideas, examples and insights in this article are thanks to the over 100 senior leaders from higher education and business, representing organisations from across every continent, who participated in the roundtables. That said, the perspective stated here – and any errors or omissions – are entirely the responsibility of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of any of the roundtable participants.


If you would like to read the individual summaries of each roundtable, you can do so here. If you would like to register your interest to attend a future roundtable or would like to discuss any of the ideas shared above, please do get in touch at info@htctw.org.


 

The fundamentals of most of higher education have remained largely the same since the industrial era, even as costs continue to increase. Faculty research, teach and are promoted within disciplinary silos. Students receive theoretical knowledge in largely passive, one-way lecture formats, learning alongside peers who are developing the same skills and ways of thinking. Some students undertake internships during their breaks, though generally organised under their own initiative based on their preexisting networks; and mostly disconnected from the subjects they’re studying. As a result, a majority of students graduating without having had even one opportunity to apply and test the knowledge and skills they’re learning in a practical setting until after they graduate — and that’s for the students who are able to access and afford the current system.


At the same time, the world and workforce have transformed — and continue to do so at a rapid and accelerating pace. Climate change, social inequality, geopolitical turmoil and the rise of AI are just a few of the wicked problems our societies are facing. Each requires radical change and enormous investment of human and financial capital to effectively address. Today’s graduates will be tomorrow’s leaders, and they deserve educational opportunities that prepare them to tackle these challenges with confidence and optimism about the future.


Given this contrast, leaders in government and higher education — and citizens more broadly — are unsurprisingly asking: is our current model of higher education preparing students to enter the modern world with courage, conviction and resilience, even as the ground continues to shift under their feet?


This was the overarching question that drove our recent roundtables, which were focused on the sustainability skills gap. Organised in partnership with Times Higher Education (in the run-up to the 2024 edition of their Global Sustainable Development Congress) and the Global Business School Network, each roundtable brought together senior leaders across higher education and business, representing institutions, organisations and corporations from across every continent. Each virtual roundtable tackled different aspects about how we can collaborate to reshape higher education to be fit for purpose today.


 

The challenges facing higher education institutions today


Below, we have summarised some of the key themes that arose time and time again across these roundtables. None of these are likely to be a surprise to anyone familiar with higher education today — though some of the insights generated in our Chatham House rule roundtable discussions did highlight the depth and urgency of these challenges.


Faculty are struggling with changing expectations (and potential irrelevance)


The historic role of the professor in teaching — to impart knowledge through “professing” (i.e. lecturing) — is increasingly redundant. With high quality, free content increasingly available at the click of a button, and AI tools enabling students to find and digest precise content at prodigious rates, students no longer need to rely on educators as primary sources of information. Rather, students are looking to educators to help them apply the vast knowledge they can now access to tackling real-world challenges. This means support and guidance — in the form of coaching and mentorship, rather than lecturing — on how to navigate the complexities associated with understanding and implementing projects (such as sustainability ideas and practices) in messy real-world contexts.


In order to respond to this shift, faculty need to be motivated and supported to rapidly evolve and update how they “teach” students. Creating active learning environments; structuring and guiding problem-based learning; and curating real-world experiential learning are all methods that require radically different approaches from traditional lecturing. Thankfully, there are many exceptional examples of these methods in practice today (see more below); yet the vast majority of today’s faculty have only learned to teach by lecture — because that is how they learned.


Higher education leaders need to rise to the challenge of creating safe environments in which faculty can learn and practise these new methods, while ensuring faculty know they will be supported and promoted for investing time and energy in developing these new competencies. That second part also requires leadership to clearly redefine what success looks like, both for students and faculty, within their institution. This means tackling some mental models currently deeply ingrained within higher education — for example, do primarily research-based promotions and the tenure system promote educational evolution at the pace that is now required?


Silos remain a large barrier to progress


Interdisciplinary learning environments are powerful ways to get students used to collaborating and balancing different perspectives, especially when tackling real-world challenges. They can also rid faculty of unhelpful thinking patterns, such as the dichotomy between “technical” and “non-technical” skills. But while there are countless examples of great interdisciplinary programs and initiatives across most institutions (some of which are included below), breaking down barriers between different schools and disciplines can still feel like a radical change for faculty that are rewarded externally and promoted internally for their research performance in highly specialised (i.e. narrow) subdomains within their discipline.


Transformation at speed and scale will not only require unity within higher education institutions but also between them, prioritising collaboration over competition. This involves making space for open, egoless conversations, so that individuals feel comfortable to share struggles as well as achievements. 


Budgets are already strained and new educational approaches are needed


Universities and colleges across the globe are facing budget cuts and other financial challenges, forcing them to rethink their business models and sometimes creating resistance to innovation. High costs, as well as the rise in non-traditional student enrolment, have impacted many institutions’ ability to offer internships and other real-world experiences to students. Meanwhile many students are facing their own financial hardships; and many of the students from underrepresented backgrounds who would most benefit from higher education often lack the social capital and networks of their peers, limiting their ability to create their own opportunities.


"Transformation at speed and scale will not only require unity within higher education institutions but also between them."

Affordability and accessibility should be the goal for forward-thinking universities and colleagues but this will require new ways of thinking. New educational methods and approaches need to leverage technology to create effective yet affordable solutions “at scale” so that potential students aren’t left with the only choice being higher education plus unmanageable debt. These methods need to be attuned to the rapidly shifting landscape and expectations for educational delivery already discussed above; this means looking for new ways to structure educational programs around the application of knowledge to real-world problems and challenges.


The good news is that the rapid advancement of the same technologies driving the disruption to lecture-based teaching (i.e. cheap, high quality content, plus AI tools) can also be harnessed to create and expand effective, affordable, accessible and efficient approaches for active learning through experiential learning. There are unique opportunities — and already great examples, as per the below — for higher education to collaborate with business on creating tangible, project-based learning for students – across in-person, hybrid and remote settings – that creates new knowledge and value for the learners, businesses and even faculty.


 

Taken together, these challenges prompt some hard questions for higher education leaders:


  • How do we keep up with the needs of the modern workforce — and modern society as a whole — to ensure students become and remain well-prepared to contribute to building a better future?

  • How do we build implementation skills, not just theoretical knowledge?

  • How do we build capacity across disciplines? 

  • How do we balance the pressure for research-based faculty with the need for the rapid expansion of active and experiential teaching and learning methods?

  • How do we navigate political pressure and individual institutional agendas, while pushing for radical progress?

  • How do we assess our efforts to know whether they are genuine or cosmetic?


 

The future is already here: great examples of what’s possible that are already in practice


Transformation needs (at least) two things:

  • First, it requires (many, many) experiments with new teaching methods and technologies which push boundaries and drive educational innovation.

  • Second, it requires bold, visionary and responsible leaders who set the goals for educational experiments at their institution, reward the experimenters (especially when the experiments fail), and then invest in successful experiments to bring them to scale (and handle the politics of replacing old methods with these new experiments).


In terms of the first point, younger generations are ready, even eager, to engage in experiments and embrace change. The students at our roundtables articulated their desire to adopt new learning methods, and to engage experiential learning that applies and hones their academic knowledge in the context of real-world challenges and opportunities.


That said, the second point is far from an easy task for senior educational leaders who are already facing mounting pressures from rapidly changing political and funding landscapes. Thankfully, our roundtables were populated with senior academic leaders who have not shied away from this challenge. That meant our roundtable discussions were replete with examples of experiments that demonstrate how much opportunity there is for higher education to remain a force for positive societal advancement in the decades to come; so much so that we cannot fit them all in here, or this would turn into a monograph (at the end of this article, we provide a list of just some of the examples that were shared or discussed during one of our roundtable discussions).



Of course, realising the potential for higher education to remain a force for social advancement asks a lot from higher education leaders across the sector. It requires them to seize opportunities to follow in these footsteps and to confront the challenges above with a balance of vision and pragmatism. Hopefully, more engagements like these roundtables can help by providing safe environments for knowledge exchange and peer learning.


 

Integrating diverse perspectives


Educators and leaders across the world are recognising the importance of exposing students to interdisciplinary learning and broad cross-sector perspectives. This starts with activities and courses that engage students across traditionally siloed disciplines, and many examples include engaging a wide range of experienced business, government and nonprofit perspectives. This also includes hearing directly from diverse people, with different social and cultural backgrounds, so that students are better prepared to understand and empathise with the human stakeholders at the heart of any challenge and proposed solution in the real-world. 


Some institutions are leading the way by, for example, bringing historically marginalised Indigenous perspectives into the classroom, bridging the gap between ancient wisdom and modern tools and approaches. The University of Victoria has implemented an Indigenous Plan that builds on its longstanding commitment to, and relationships with, Indigenous communities, both local and national. The plan focuses on embedding Indigenous knowledge and leadership across the institution, including via research, outreach and engagement initiatives, and programs.


"Educators and leaders across the world are recognising the importance of exposing students to interdisciplinary learning."

The University of Wollongong is similarly committed to Indigenous Advancement and inspiring a better future through education, research and partnership. Their initiatives include bringing Indigenous voices into the classroom, both in person and virtually, and working with Indigenous academics and consultants to build genuine and productive relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities.  


From integrated (required) work experience to apprenticeship models


A wide number of business and engineering programs worldwide have increasingly integrated work experience as a program requirement. Similarly, apprenticeships are rising in popularity amongst higher education institutions as a way of connecting the academic experience to the working one. 


For example, students studying engineering or architecture at the University of Waterloo must enter into a co-op program, which requires them to gain up to two years of real-world experience throughout their degree. The program also gives students access to WatPD-Engineering, an online professional development program that covers résumé writing, networking and more (and is a degree requirement). 


For business schools, offering hands-on experiences with strong connections to the working world can differentiate them from other institutions. Poets&Quants recently published an article about the on-campus Manderson MBA offered by The University of Alabama’s Culverhouse College of Business. This program dramatically increased enrollment by focusing on preparing motivated students to gain deep industry knowledge, assessment and development of personal skills, and the ability to work in teams. MBA students at Culverhouse can enter national competitions to solve business problems, travel internationally to meet with business leaders and gain inexpensive access to symposia and conferences.


Experiential learning as the new paradigm


Programs that integrate experiential learning at scale can be a real and proven driver for change. Gallup research found that college graduates who participate in experiential learning opportunities during their degree have radically increased odds of being engaged in their work and having long term wellbeing throughout their careers and lives. When grounded in the right pedagogies, experiential learning gives students hands-on practice of critically evaluating problems, engaging with stakeholders, balancing differing motivations and priorities, and developing the mindsets and skills needed to practically implement local solutions to systemic challenges. Throughout this process, students develop transversal skills like critical thinking, communication and adaptability. Perhaps most importantly, the best experiential learning opportunities provide students with the freedom to discover and pursue their sense of purpose and agency when exploring and tackling real-world challenges.


There are many excellent examples of institutions already putting problem-based, experiential learning at the heart of pedagogies. For example, Olin College of Engineering has embedded a hands-on approach to engineering; students work in collaborative teams on projects that focus on real-world problems, and have many opportunities to pursue research and project work both inside and outside the classroom.


There are also projects underway to support institutions to integrate experiential learning into curricula and better prepare students for a changing world. For example, the U.S. National Science Foundation is funding a project led by the American Society for Engineering Education focused on developing a blueprint for transforming engineering education and creating the engineers of the future. 


Global experiential learning online — reaching across disciplines, generations and geographies


Technology has a vital role to play in allowing institutions to overcome two of the most common blockers preventing them implementing experiential learning: cost and scale. The right tech, used properly, can not only lessen the administrative burden for faculty and radically reduce course costs, but also allow students and educators to collaborate across disciplines, institutions and countries. This type of collaborative learning is vital, recreating the globalised, online-first workplace today’s graduates are joining. 


At How to Change the World, we run online experiential learning Bootcamps and Courses for students and early-career professionals. Every program brings together hundreds of students from dozens of universities and colleges to tackle real-world challenges, supported by local community representatives and globally diverse experts, as well as an experienced teaching team. Each participant has the chance to work on a team with colleagues from other institutions and geographies, and be coached by senior colleagues from around the world, providing unique global virtual mobility that fosters mindset and skills development.


At the end, each diverse team produces a multimedia summary of their work, and are interviewed by community, industry and academic experts (for examples of student teams’ work you can see the digital showcases for our 2023 and 2024 multi-university courses.)


We are grateful to all of the senior academic leaders across our growing network of institutional partners who make this collaboration possible; particularly including our early pilot partners for our multi-university course: the University of Toronto, University of Waterloo, Queen’s University Canada, McGill University and Toronto Metropolitan University (you can find our full list of partners and more about our programs on this page.)


 

The following is a list of excellent initiatives shared by roundtable participants during the discussions.


This is in no way meant to be a comprehensive list of valuable initiatives; it is simply the initiatives that were shared and discussed during the roundtables. Roundtable participants: if something is missing from this list, please do let us know and we’ll happily add it.


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