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: