Viewpoint: How to shape the University of the Future

23 Jan 2020 | Viewpoint

Universities should not be viewed as graduate factories. They need to get back to their core ethos, and educate students to think. Learning by doing is the way forward

Dan Remenyi

Universities have long been important institutions, providing a wide range of people with the education needed to pursue professional careers. The model was so successful it has been taken for granted that getting a university education is a “good thing” and would lead to a relatively fast track to success.

But times have changed. With the exception of the elite universities, graduates are no longer quite as certain of obtaining a good job as before. The labour market is much more competitive and there is greater emphasis on instant results.

Leaders in commerce and industry have been critical of universities for not producing work-ready graduates. In addition, the intense focus on research in the modern university is seen as not necessarily having a positive impact on the quality of university teaching.

Within the universities there has been some disquiet about management practices including the remuneration packages awarded to vice-chancellors and others in senior management.

Student debt has become a major problem in some parts of the world.

So what has to be done? Well in the first place it is necessary to understand that universities have become large multiproduct, multiprocess, and multifunction businesses.

This has been largely imposed on them by the fact that government funding has not been as generous as in previous years. Today these institutions are quite different from universities 50 years ago. This needs to be understood by everyone concerned.

In doing this, it is important to emphasise that universities have to be about education, education and education – and it is essential to ensure that the essence of education is understood. Education is not so much about transferring facts and figures or skills. It is certainly not about banking information in the heads of the learners. Education is rather about developing a mind-set where the learner realises his or her potential and to face challenging situations and come up with satisfactory answers to problems.

Of course, knowledge is required to achieve this, but it needs more than knowledge. Becoming work-ready is not the reason to go to university - but there is no doubt becoming work-savvy, which requires inter alia an achievement ethos, is a very useful thing.

It has been known for a long time that attending lectures is one of the least effective ways of learning. So learning by doing has to be the way forward and furthermore working – that is, doing - alongside accomplished practitioners has much to offer. So the University of the Future will amongst other things put greater emphasis on collaboration with practitioners.

Don’t jam pack the day

Universities have to be careful not to jam pack their students’ days with work. University years are the time for individual exploration through discourse with others in similar circumstances and reading works which will broaden the mind.

Like lectures, traditional examinations often do not really establish what students know in any depth. Students anticipate exam questions and learn answers to previously asked questions off by heart.

It has been said that in ancient China admission to the civil service was highly competitive, requiring many years of study and a day long examination. The interesting point is that the examination question was always the same every year and furthermore it was well known to everyone. It went something like this, “Write down what you know that will demonstrate that you are worthy of a position in your country’s administration.” 

Today the final question, in order to graduate from university, could be, “Write down what you know about economics or mathematics or civil engineering, or whatever your subject is, which will allow this university to be confident that you are worthy of being awarded a degree.”

This approach alone to examination, if it were correctly applied, would make a major contribution to making a university education much relevant.

Attending a university is a privilege. Irrespective of who pays for it, higher education is very expensive. Those who obtain a degree need to be cognisant of a requirement to put something into the society which has facilitated their development. Universities do not emphasise this enough today. No one can really ever pay back the help received to develop and achieve success, but everyone can pay forward and facilitate others achieve their potential.

It is clear that the University of the Future will be different to what it is today. But it is essential not to forget the achievements of the past. Universities have made remarkable contributions to improving peoples’ lives. Universities have often led the way in developing new ideas, new processes and new products. Universities have encouraged individuals who have become leaders in all walks of life. And through bringing together young and enthusiastic individuals universities have drawn attention to our need to aspire to a better way of life.

Professor Dan Remenyi is Co-Editor and contributor to the newly published book The University of the Future.

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