Woman debating with her peers

Reimagining international tertiary education for a post-pandemic world

Even before the recent global pandemic, universities were under pressure to reimagine tertiary education.  The dominant model, which arose from Medieval Europe and was exported around the world, is for an institution that acts as the custodian and creator of knowledge, provides a young, often residential student body with opportunities to learn and facilitates the exchange of knowledge both globally and with its local community.

These fundamental activities, particularly when delivered to a very high standard, are still seen as of tremendous value.  One of the current challenges is how tertiary education can be made affordable for countries with large young populations without sacrificing quality.  Digital technology has been expected to help and the response to the recent pandemic has shed some light on the opportunities and limitations of remote delivery.  What have we learned and how can we apply this to the post-pandemic world?

Some feel, however, that the expansion of higher education is too often at the expense of technical and vocational education and that both need a greater focus on enterprise, which, some argue, may be better developed outside of the formal education system.  What is the right balance between academic and vocational education and enterprise as we seek to build back better?  Are the relevant skills for each best delivered through separate systems or integrated into one tertiary education system with multiple points of interchange with each other and with employers and/or investors?  What implications would this have for the way tertiary education is funded, delivered and perceived?

There is also still a sense that a university education is too elitist.  While many educators are passionate about widening participation and inclusivity and there are many examples of a university education opening doors of opportunity to individuals who, because of their position in society might otherwise find them closed, overall universities act to maintain the status quo.  Research partnerships between the global north and global south often benefit the north more than the south, sometimes to the extent of being exploitative.  The most prestigious universities which act as the gateway to the most powerful professions recruit mainly from higher social classes.  The curriculum is seen as privileging knowledge and approaches to knowledge creation and curation from a small group of people.  While academic freedom and freedom of speech are seen as core principles within most university systems, some feel they are coming under attack from both the left and the right.  How can universities be made more representative of, and accessible to, the communities they serve while remaining a locus for open but rigorous argument and debate? 

Universities are being challenged to demonstrate how they can respond quickly to the changing needs of different communities – global, national and local.  What is the best way to balance developing the research capability to address global challenges with providing local workforces with the right skills for the jobs in their communities?   Should there be different universities for different tasks or are these things too intrinsically connected? At the same time how can universities act as global connectors without being environmentally unsustainable.  As the UK, in partnership with Italy, prepares to host the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2021 which will bring together over 30,000 delegates including heads of state, climate experts and campaigners to agree coordinated action to tackle climate change, what contribution can universities and colleges make to that collective action?

At this conference we are going to reimagine tertiary education through the following lenses:


The changing student body

The student body is evolving and changing, expecting new modes of delivery, greater flexibility in how, when and where they learn and different ways to engage internationally.  

  • Who are modern students and what do they (or should they) now want a university education to help them achieve?  How can we best involve students in influencing the design of their curricula and the nature of their university experience?  Do we need more attention on lifelong learning and portability of skills and qualifications between careers?
  • What are the opportunities of digital and what are the drawbacks – including in relation to opportunities to study at international institutions/engage with other cultures?
  • More immediately, what skills do learners need to catalyse the immediate recovery from the effects of the pandemic e.g. digital capability, resilience, the ability to be a self-starter, the ability to identify key industries?  What is the role of internationalisation in helping students gain these skills?
  • In some countries, the emphasis is on universities preparing students for the job market including ensuring they gain the skills employers need; in others the need is for their graduates to create the jobs market.  What role can or should universities play in supporting enterprise?  How do they balance this with maintaining the pipeline for blue skies research?  How should they link up with colleges/TVET providers?  Do we need to unpick the binary divide to form an education system with a holistic offer or is it better to have two systems with different but complementary missions?  What should a country do if it is starting from a low base – is this an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the past and try something new?

Serving the post-pandemic society

The two world wars fundamentally changed society in many countries with many seeing a bigger role for the state and a different place for women within society.  How will the current pandemic change the world and what role can higher education play in building back better?

  • Should, and if so how, can universities better reflect the societies they serve?  What are the opportunities and challenges of the global pandemic for inclusion, for example what have we learned about the opportunities and challenges of digital delivery?  
  • Movements like Black Lives Matter and Rhodes Must Fall mean that universities have to confront their complicity in some of histories' darker events.  What could or should they do to "decolonise the university"?  What role could/should this play in wider cultural/diplomatic relations?
  • What role should higher education play in development?  And how should higher education systems be developed in a way that reduces rather than exacerbates inequality?  
  • What does the better path of the future look like in terms of industry and society and how can education institutions, colleges (and independent training providers) make that future and be incentivised by policy makers to do so?  
  • What does this shock tell us about how we need to prepare for shocks?  Referencing environmentalism, youth unemployment, declining industries etc can we create artificial cliff edges to drive managed but quick adaption based on how Covid forced that change and what can we learn from it?
  • How should universities protect free speech in countries where this is under-attack?  Could the global higher education community do more to help institutions under pressure?
  • What role should universities play in supporting a rules based international system?  How can we ensure that expert advice is understood and built into policy?  What have we learned from the pandemic?
  • What is the role of universities in supporting and enriching the intellectual life of their own community? Is there an international dimension to this aspect of their purpose?

Protecting the planet

Universities have "international" running through their DNA and many of the generally recognised markers of quality are closely related to how international an institution is.  Many of the challenges facing the world can only be tackled through global action. Traditional methods of working internationally are being challenged by restrictions imposed by Covid  as well as by an imperative on all sectors of society to reduce their carbon footprint.

  • What role could or should universities play in tackling climate change?  What role should they play in coordinating collective action?
  • How should they model leadership within their own institutions?  What does the reimagined environmentally sustainable university look like?
  • How can universities act as global connectors with less international travel because of the imperative to reduce their carbon footprint (and the restrictions imposed by Covid)?  What can be done digitally and what must be done face to face? 
  • How can university research support a more environmentally friendly way of life?  How can universities help policy makers lead more sustainable societies?
  • Does the institutional behaviour change driven by the pandemic or in response to Climate Change present opportunities for new ways of working that are more equitable between the global north and the global south?