There seems to be a convention that every higher education policy document should start with “in this rapidly changing environment”, and “there are challenges to be faced”. Could this be more true than right now?
In my years of working in higher education policy, one thing that always struck me was that although universities recognised the changing environment and the challenges, this was generally in retrospect – higher education was, and is, mostly playing catch up. This means adapting at a pace governed and often hindered by administration, culture and the “old guard” preserving the ivory tower.
This does not mean there were no inspirational innovators and entrepreneurs in higher education. They have always been there, fighting to get things done. The success of these innovators is often described as “inspirational” in case studies and literature, but seemed seldom recognised within the institution in which they made such an impact.
I remember when I first got involved in HEInnovate in 2013, attending a conference on entrepreneurial education and how the participants saw themselves as the mavericks and the outsiders pushing an agenda which they were struggling to convince their hierarchies to value in the way they did. Move on a few years and some of the same mavericks had become insiders, moved to centre stage and are now considered to be at the forefront of their university’s strategic thinking. As a result, these days the picture is rather different. In the face of an extraordinary global public health crisis we have seen how the stately higher education vehicle slowly moving towards its destination can actually accelerate in formula one conditions, with changes taking place in weeks rather than years.
In many cases, once again it is those innovators and entrepreneurs who have been central to their universities’ efforts to get tuition online in a week, grapple with issues of exams and assessment and respond with agility as the feedback from students and staff comes in.
“Yet at the same time, and avoiding nostalgia, we must not lose the essence of what makes a higher education experience great. Great for students, teachers, researchers, employers and all the other players who work alongside these institutions to make them what they are.”
What I mean is that we should remember why the “old guard” care about the university, and not lose what was good about it. This concerns quality, rigour, inspiration, good teaching and research, physical interaction, the opportunities for students to build lasting professional networks, travel internationally and make new friends.
So the truism of the challenges to be faced in a rapidly changing environment might have a novel twist. The risk is that by the next academic year it could be the “old guard” who are fighting like mavericks on the sideline for maintaining and mainstreaming some of the most important parts of the university experience. It is many of these experiences which also provide the 21st Century skills and competences which underpin our ability to adapt, be resilient and thrive.
Rebecca Allinson is a Managing Partner at Technopolis, a Science, innovation and research consultancy. Rebecca heads up the higher education division and has over 20 years experience of working on issues of higher education policy for the European Commission and National Governments in Europe. Rebecca is passionate about higher education and entrepreneurship and the changes that are happening across the globe to support people, from every walk of life, to access and benefit from the opportunities higher education can bring.