Two decades is a time long enough for radical transformations to take place. Take any 20 years in the last century; it is surprising to see how much the world evolved during that period. Most likely, significant elements in the world of the future were hardly imagined at the outset.
Universities have been around for centuries, but they are not exempt from reinvention and adaptation, particularly in this remarkably dynamic era. Their reason for existence is as valid today as it has always been. However, remaining relevant and true to their mission requires adjustments per today’s challenges and conditions.
As the 21st century will soon start its third decade, it becomes clear that knowledge intensity will only increase while crucial challenges at the societal and environmental level deepen. In such a context, what role will universities have in our society? How will universities impact our knowledge society and societal development? What changes do universities have to make to ensure they remain relevant? When looking into the future, three roles set universities apart from organizations of any other nature. These roles enable higher education institutions to have a leadership role as change agents in our society, shaping the world we live in, and developing individuals capable of creating more prosperity.
These roles are:
– The university as a beacon of wisdom – In a world that is over-informed and where truth is threatened, and trust is lost, academia should persist in being the key generators of knowledge, the defenders of truth, freedom, and tolerance, thought leaders in society and role models for those around them.
– The university as a great equalizer – When people from many different walks of life, and a variety of socioeconomic conditions, have the opportunity to get a degree, the outcome is a more mobile society where there is always an opportunity for those persistent enough in their pursuits.
– The university as a shaper of individual character – The integral formation of the person, the primacy of the being versus having, a strong moral compass, and the capacity as an individual to continuously learn and reinvent. All these are only more important as the world evolves.
The roles just described may be achieved by as many different ways as universities that exist. All institutions have their unique historical trajectory. What they cannot afford, is to make decisions that are against sustainability, be it financial, environmental, or even moral. Two underlying variables may describe an institution’s trajectory over time:
Degree of interaction
Universities may be Low Touch or High Touch. Institutions leveraging economies of scale and seeking cost containment will generally have a low touch approach; more focus on system automation and standardized procedures with less personal interaction. In contrast, high touch approaches will be those where personal attention and interaction is a fundamental element of the operational model.
Universities may focus on Knowledge Creation or Knowledge Application. Those institutions oriented towards knowledge creation will prioritize research and technological development, often seeking to capitalize on intellectual property and transfer technology, thus becoming drivers of economic progress, particularly in areas where there is a high concentration of scientific and knowledge-based activities.
“Institutions oriented towards knowledge application will prioritize teaching and serving companies through liaison interventions leveraging proven techniques, tools, and knowledge sets”
High-quality education need not be the realm of one particular combination of the variables just described. An institution should have high quality, regardless of the combination of variables around which it decides to build its trajectory into the future. Indeed, higher education increasingly faces more checks and balances, which will make it harder to offer academic programs that do not meet a minimum standard of quality education. There is a pressure to improve, and external referents like the rankings play an important role. While experience shows that rankings tend to offer one-size-fitsall formulas in assessing institutions, increasingly ranking initiatives are recognizing the depth and breadth of types of institutions that populate the university landscape across nations. Regardless of the chosen trajectory, or particular conditions, in the future, all universities will need to address the following elements:
– Innovation – At all levels of the organization, innovation is essential for long term success. From crafting new strategies and models to being at the forefront of program design, or deploying technology throughout the learning experience.
– Access – Facilitating access to students from diverse backgrounds, allowing for flexibility and customized pathways for degree completion.
– Success – Focusing on student success, to the point that measuring it becomes embedded across the institution. Extending the concept of success requires seeing the complete lifecycle of the person as it engages with the university — the whole experience outside the classroom and the physical space, and beyond graduation.
– Sustainability – In a world that changes fast, many times in unpredictable ways, leadership farsightedness and systems approach to decision making, is fundamental to guide the institutions sustainably.
The university of the next generation, a generation characterized by unique demographics, societal changes, individualism and never-ending stimuli from external sources, will focus on student success and adaptability to a changing environment in the knowledge era, but not forgetting the utmost importance of humanistic, value-driven and integral education. An education that will render future generations better able to transform the world, for the better.
Francisco Vélez-Torres is the Dean of the College of Business and Administration at CETYS University, in Baja California, Mexico. Formerly, Dean of Graduate Business Programs at the same Institution. Beyond CETYS, his teaching experience includes Universidad Estatal de Sonora, San Diego State University, and Northwestern Polytechnic University in China. Professor Vélez-Torres is an ACE Fellow 2018-2019, and a member of the Microeconomics of Competitiveness Network of the Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness of Harvard University.
Professor Vélez holds a Doctorate in Business Administration from CETYS (ACBSP & WASC accredited); an MBA from John Molson School of Business, Concordia University (AACSB Accredited), Montreal, Quebec; and a B.S. in Industrial Engineering from CETYS, Mexicali, Mexico.