Debating the future of higher education

The Guild launched its third Insight Paper on 4 June 2021, bringing together representatives from academia, the European Commission, and university associations to discuss how higher education can embrace the digital transformation that is sweeping through the sector.

Universities are forced to operate at the interface of various tensions, balancing disciplinary knowledge with interdisciplinarity, individual learning with growing number of students, and national accreditation systems with international student and staff mobility, just to name a few. The pandemic added to these challenges, as universities were forced to switch to digital spaces overnight and still to maintain social connections among staff and students.

How to turn these tensions into opportunities and ensure higher education responds to the needs of the graduates in the 21st century were the key questions discussed in The Guild’s virtual event. The speakers reflected on the recommendations proposed in the new Insight Paper “Reimagining Research-led Education in a Digital Age”, authored by Jo Angouri, Academic Director for Education and Internationalisation at the University of Warwick.

“Gone are the days when we think of the EU’s added value in the realm of education as being essentially about mobility. With the European Education Area, the Commission has signalled that how we prepare young citizens to benefit from the single market, and how we enable them to engage in Europe’s digital and green transformations, is a critical political concern,” Secretary-General Jan Palmowski emphasized. This set the scene for the first panel in which Vanessa Debiais-Sainton, Head of the Higher Education Unit at DG EAC, and Michael Gaebel, Director of Higher Education Policy at the European University Association, highlighted universities’ capabilities as actors of change but noted that the way forward is not yet a straight road.

The panellists discussed universities’ role in providing lifelong learning which Gaebel noted was not always fully recognised. Debiais-Sainton explained that a lack of common standards has created uncertainties around the added value that short-learning courses can provide. “This is where we think Europe can add value, by defining European standards to help building trust, recognition, validation and take up of these types of courses and micro-credentials,” she highlighted. Debiais-Sainton encouraged a wider reflection on how the EU could support universities address their key challenges, as part of a European strategy for universities.

One of the key issues the panellists agreed on was the need to reward teaching activities compared to the recognition given to research. “When I am in my research world, nobody asks me what I do in my education world, and vice versa,” Jo Angouri told. She also pointed out that we need to embed good practices or initiatives into the curriculum journey of each student.

The second panel zoomed in on the concrete experiences of universities managing the transformation. Benoît Raucent, President of the Louvain Learning Lab at UCLouvain, and Jeroen Kooman, Director of the Institute for Education Innovation at the Maastricht University, highlighted the power of digital tools in fostering collaboration between students and teachers at local and international levels and the opportunities hybrid models can provide in terms of cooperation beyond the higher education sector.

However, all the panellists emphasized the challenges which universities experienced when supporting the social dimension of education. “There are many problems in case of research-based projects and student teamwork. Competencies such as student collaboration, that in times of the pandemic should be valued the most, unfortunately seemed to have decreased in number possibly due to the challenges of implementing it virtually,” explained Rūta Eidukevičienė, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Vytautas Magnus University. She particularly highlighted the field of humanities, where face-to-face discussions and a creative work environment are highly appreciated.

The definition of research-led education was also debated by many panellists, who emphasized the role of research in education also at the undergraduate level to stimulate students’ critical thinking.

The launch event marked the beginning of a series of seminars hosted by The Guild member universities about the educational transformations we need. The next virtual event, hosted by the University of Warwick and The Guild, will take place on 29 June. The registration is open now.

Published June 8, 2021 8:21 AM - Last modified June 8, 2021 8:46 AM