The ongoing pandemic is challenging the entire world with dawning economic crises, mass unemployment and destabilization of our societies. It is obvious that the world needs a new beginning. Not just to overcome the pandemic but to do so with sustainable development as the goal.
Universities have earned their place over a thousand years as engines of societal advancement and critical thinking, cradles of new knowledge, technology and innovation, and drivers of economic growth – all this leading to increasing prosperity and well-being. The world has changed many times throughout the history of universities. They have sometimes led the change, other times found themselves adjusting to new realities. Now is the time to lead, and to decide what to keep and what to change when we enter the next phase.
The nature of work has been changing for quite a while. Traditional jobs are being replaced by new ones that require higher levels of education and new skills. After the pandemic we will have millions of people with no jobs and the need of reskilling is increasing. This will be a massive education challenge.
Governments need to increase their investment in high-quality education and universities must speed up their reforms. Actions are needed for rapid reskilling of large numbers of people. Universities also need to cater to lifelong learners to maintain relevant competences in the rapidly changing job markets. Both these developments will require increased volume and throughput in higher education. Introducing elements of online education is one option for achieving the necessary efficiency.
The complexity of global grand challenges calls for a diversity of skills, both of individuals and teams of experts. In addition to academic content, employers request skills in creativity, entrepreneurship, teamwork and leadership. Reskilling and lifelong learning will require a solid foundation in research just as any form of higher education. However, they address adult learners in the middle of their careers who can’t spend years on reskilling. Reforms are thus also needed in the way universities design and deliver courses.
The long-term nature of their work is both a strength and a weakness of universities. Research involves patiently uncovering scientific phenomena and then using this new knowledge to solve societal challenges. However, at the same time, maintaining this research foundation makes universities slow to change. At a time when changes are needed, leadership is the key. Change leadership in universities must mix respect of the academic expertise and autonomy with the creation of inspiration and incentives for new ways of working.
Governments can facilitate this by increasing the institutional autonomy of universities, granting their leaders a strong mandate to lead and by rewarding both excellence and relevance. University leaders are wise to increase the diversity of their faculty and staff for increased creativity and to give students more freedom to shape their own education. They should invite partners from industry and other stakeholders to contribute – not to compromise the scientific depth but to complement the academic endeavor with best practices and aspirations of the job market.
The high speed of scientific and technological development gives us hope but only if our institutions and our communities are capable of change. In many discussions of our shared future the concept of inclusion has been lifted as a key area of change that must take place – research and innovation must benefit more people in all parts of the world. A goal and conviction that was born long before the pandemic hit us and that with the consequences of the global crisis has become even more important.
“IMAGINE now a recovery and a new beginning toward a sustainable future built on inclusive innovation and world-wide collaboration.”
Tuula Teeri is the President of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences (IVA). She has held research and leadership positions at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden. As the President of Aalto University in Finland, she led a successful merger of three universities in technology, business and design. She is member of the Academic Research Council, Singapore, and the Board of Stockholm University, Sweden.