Do We Need to Reinvent Higher Education?

Higher Education in a Changing World

The last two years have brought significant challenges and disruptions to the higher education sector worldwide. The coronavirus pandemic all but halted foreign travel, resulting in a sharp drop in the number of international students. At the same time, courses moved online and educators scrambled to reinvent learning for a digital university.

These rapid shifts highlighted the shortfalls in the current higher education system, particularly in relation to economic models, staff resilience, digital competencies and robust IT infrastructures. Yet, with the ongoing climate crisis and its implications for virtually every aspect of human activity, more changes are likely to affect higher education in the future.

As the world navigates what the ‘new normal’ of living with COVID-19 might look like, it may be worth asking what the future for higher education might hold. The European University Association (EUA) dedicated the final webinar in its event series ‘A New World? Universities in Changing International Relations’ to this very question.

Under the headline What Next for Global Higher Education?, the webinar offered insights from eminent experts across the sector, including the Head of Innovation and Measuring Progress Division at the OECD Directorate of Education and Skills, Tia Loukkola, and Ole Petter Ottersen, the President of the Karolinska Institute, a leading medical university in Sweden.

The webinar followed the 3rd UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education (WHEC2022), which was held from 18 to 20 May 2022 in Barcelona, Spain. The conference brought together 1,800 delegates from 130 countries with the aim of reshaping ideas and practices in higher education to ensure sustainable development for the planet and humanity.

Stefania Giannini, Assistant Director-General for Education at UNESCO, pointed out that in these times of transition and disruption, higher education has an important, strategic role to play in building more sustainable, resilient and peaceful societies. But to do this, much of the higher education sector needs to adapt as well.

To meet the challenges of the future head-on, WHEC2022 was intended to define and prepare a roadmap for a new era of higher education. The roadmap, which was developed as an open, living document that is shaped by all stakeholders in the sector, sets out UNESCO’s vision of higher education.

Guided by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and UNESCO’s Futures of Education Report, the document proposed six key principles that are intended to shape higher education in the future. They include:

  • Inclusion, equity and pluralism.
  • Academic freedom and participation of all stakeholders.
  • Inquiry, critical thinking and creativity.
  • Integrity and ethics.
  • Commitment to sustainability and social responsibility.
  • Excellence through cooperation rather than competition.

While the roadmap offers bold ideas, it is however up to individual actors in the sector to make the changes. For this, as the report itself admits, higher education institutions need the kind of renewed thinking and extensive dialogue provided by the recent EUA webinar.

Learning from Recent Trends in Tertiary Education

The first speaker at the webinar, Tia Loukkola, presented information regarding tertiary education in recent times and how this can enable the global higher education community to look to the future. Loukkola is the Head of Innovation and Measuring Progress Division within the Directorate of Education and Skills at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Loukkola stated that global tertiary attainment expanded for 25 to 34-year-olds for the period 2008 to 2018, and this trend is continuing in the same direction at the present time. The most up to date statistics (post-2018) are expected to be made available in September 2022. The statistics revealed results for OECD countries, showing that all such countries have achieved expansion in tertiary attainment, with the nations of Turkey, Slovakia and Luxembourg showing the largest growth. In Loukkola’s words: ‘Tertiary education is growing across the world.’

Why is tertiary education so important? From looking at the statistics, Loukkola confirmed that it ‘still pays off to go to university’. This is in terms of the increased likelihood of gaining employment as well as a better salary. Indeed, the OECD statistics show that Lithuania, Norway, the UK, Netherlands and Iceland all demonstrated over 90% employment rates for younger adults with Bachelor’s or equivalent qualifications (2018 data).

However, there is evidence that there are challenges for individuals when transitioning from tertiary education to the labour market, with the presence of such difficulties being more marked in the younger adult demographic (25 to 34-year-olds). They are not as often employed as their older counterparts (45 to 54-year-olds). This is a noticeable trend and it is worth asking why this is the case and what can be done to support younger adults leaving tertiary education.

Access to and inclusion within higher education, in terms of open (or selective) admissions systems and the cost of education, are other factors to consider. In over half of OECD countries, there is ‘free access to higher education’ (free in the sense that it is not limited).

Another aspect that links to inclusion and equity in education is the rate of completion of tertiary education courses. The statistics show differing completion rates across the various OECD economies for full-time students entering Bachelor’s or equivalent programmes (2017 data). This ranges from the UK with a 71% completion rate to Chile with a completion rate of 15%. In fact, the presentation slide heading states that only 40% of students entering a Bachelor’s programme graduate within the theoretical duration. The issue of retention of students is therefore an important one to consider in future discussions about global education.

Loukkola pointed out that education funding structures differ greatly between Europe and other parts of the world. She states that ‘European countries seem to rely much more on public expenditure on higher education’. For example, Finland’s tertiary expenditure is 96% from public sources, whereas Japan’s is 30% from public sources, with the major share coming from household sources (2016 data). The question is whether the countries with high levels of public expenditure can sustain this on a long-term basis into the future. This, Loukkola indicated, is another subject for further discussion.

Although funding on tertiary education has increased, average spending on tertiary institutions as a share of GDP has fallen. This means that expenditure on other sectors of society has increased more than expenditure on higher education. It is therefore imperative that the value of higher education is demonstrated to policy makers going forwards into the future.

Inequity and Marketisation: A Threat to the Higher Education of the Future

In the next presentation, Ole Petter Ottersen, President of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, began by highlighting the importance of having this webinar on the future of higher education following the COVID-19 pandemic. Though he stated that the UNESCO roadmap was on the right track, he also identified several issues.

Recently returning from a visit to Africa, the first issue that he mentioned and that must be addressed is the inequity in the world. Although inequity is mentioned in the roadmap, he argues that the gravity of inequity, which is highly evident in today’s society, is not sufficiently reflected in the UNESCO roadmap. Ottersen was able to provide an example from his own academic field (medicine) as he stated that the number of physicians in Western Europe is around 25 per 10,000 inhabitants. In comparison, in some African countries this is below 1 per 10,000, highlighting striking differences and inequalities.

For academics, acknowledging the gravity of inequity in the world today is crucial. Ottersen concluded on this issue by stating that ‘if universities still cling on to the idea that they should have a global responsibility, Africa and poorer countries must not be forgotten and must be included in all the discourse’ and discussions around the future of higher education.

The second issue highlighted by Ottersen is mentioned in the roadmap but is not directly elaborated on. This is an issue linked to inequality, namely the marketisation of higher education. Regarding this issue, he argued that many universities derive some of their revenues from higher education, but that this development has gone too far. He also emphasised the importance of reflecting on the loss of autonomy as a result of marketisation, which is a paradox.

It has been argued that the marketisation of higher education should strengthen institutions’ autonomy as universities are able to generate high revenues, however, this has had an opposite effect. Ottersen raised several interesting points and stated that the marketisation of higher education actually leads to a loss of autonomy.

The pandemic highlighted that when travel restrictions were in place, many universities struggled as they were highly dependent on higher education revenues, potentially from the revenues generated from overseas students. In addition, he argued that if universities are too dependent on international revenues, other countries may use this as an instrument of power, and countries may also potentially lose autonomy. A wider debate on this particular issue is therefore necessary as the marketisation of higher education also contributes to inequities.

During the webinar, Ottersen used a powerful metaphor to reinforce his point on inequities and the need to include non-OECD countries in the discussion. He stated that although ‘it is fine that in Europe we invite Africans, Asians, people from all over the world to our educational tables, what we should do is look at how to bring the table to Africa’ and ‘bring the table to all the continents rather than invite students from all the continents to our table in Europe’.

Ottersen concluded by highlighting that the issue of reciprocity is absent from the UNESCO roadmap and this is a subject where further discussion and debate is required. On this, he argued that Europe should not regard itself as the know-all continent and that Europe has a lot to learn from all the continents, which links back to Ottersen’s concerns about inequity.

Resilience for an Uncertain Future

The pressures to reform higher education structures and rethink institutional priorities have grown significantly in the face of ongoing environmental, societal and economic challenges, and the impact they continue to have on the way we work, communicate and study.

As both the speakers at the EUA webinar and the authors of the UNESCO roadmap highlighted, it is vital that higher education institutions learn from these changes and challenges in order to improve structures, norms and policies. Only through a shift in mindsets to privilege cooperation over competition, diversity over uniformity, flexible learning pathways over traditionally structured ones, is it possible to develop the resilience necessary to weather the storms of the future.

While this journey may be a long one, the first steps in the right direction are currently taking place, with the development of the UNESCO roadmap as well as events like the EUA webinar, which encourage honest dialogue among stakeholders and raise awareness of what needs to be done.

A recording of the EUA webinar is available via the EUA YouTube channel.