The university of the future?
The last 15 months have been remarkable.
I’ve watched friends leave their offices - some temporarily, others permanently – and learn how to conduct business from their living rooms, spare rooms or kitchens.
I’ve learned how to run virtual workshops – with post it notes, breakouts, voting and chats in the coffee room – using Teams, Zoom and Webex.
I’ve tried to support colleagues who live alone and who love going to work for the camaraderie as much as for the job, but who have been forced to self isolate for most of the year. I’ve watched their mental health decline and found that my hope they will recover once back in the workplace has not always been realised.
I’ve seen my – and my friends’ – children trying to cope with interrupted studies, with isolation from friends and lovers, and with something more than the normal levels of uncertainty and anxiety that arrive with a new baby.
I know people who’ve lost close relatives to Covid-19; and I know people who’ve lost patience with it and the structures we’ve put in place to manage it.
What’s most remarkable of all, perhaps, is that we’ve become so accustomed to living and working this way in the last year that it feels normal. For some of us, it’s a better normal; for others it’s worse.
The big question is, what happens next?
We could return to the way things were before. Those of us who are office based could once again travel there five days a week, perhaps with a longish commute. We’d have to make some concessions to Covid, of course, such as reducing the number of desks in open plan offices, putting screens up between desks, establishing one way systems and possibly restricting the number of people who can go to the toilet or coffee room at any one time.
That’s certainly the preferred solution for some employers who have found that home working doesn’t fit with business need and, in particular, has a negative impact on collaboration and innovation. As Covid recedes and lockdowns become a thing of the past, this may indeed be the way ahead for those organisations.
The alternative that many employers are exploring is blended (or hybrid) working – where staff can opt to work both from home and the office. Putting aside the challenges for organisations that prefer line of sight people management, this arrangement offers some advantages: a lower (if differently utilised) estate, a more productive workforce (as long as the process is managed effectively) and the opportunity to move towards strategic long term use of freelancers. Blended working may even mean that some large employers close central offices in favour of more distributed hubs.
What might this all mean for the university of the future? There are, perhaps, five issues to consider.
The first is that universities are themselves large organisations that need to decide whether collaboration and innovation are better served by coming to work each day or by a blended approach. For academic and research staff, this decision may be a no brainer – the blended approach has always been informally built in – but it’s more of a moot point when it comes to professional services; and, historically at least, to teaching.
It’s intriguing, too, to consider whether the university of the future might - like its corporate and government cousins - reduce and distribute estate to support blended working and blended learning. While this might seem a big step for some institutions, who knows what a wave of mergers – or sustained falls in revenue - might unlock?
Teaching and learning
The second issue is how the university of the future will adapt teaching and learning to meet the changing needs of students and the economy. By mid 2020, 1.5bn students around the world – primary, secondary and teriary – were unable to attend their place of learning and schools and universities responded quickly and effectively to put material online.It was a fantastic effort.
When the pandemic eventually recedes, university teaching will almost certainly not go back to business as before. Partly this is because Covid-19 catalysed a change that was already in play – the move to blended learning – and partly because the final destination of most students – the workplace – is more likely than not to be blended in the future. Consequently, the university of the future is likely to take a blended approach.
Research in the US has shown that only half of teaching staff are comfortable with blended learning environments – with 43% preferring an exclusively face-to-face teaching environment. This will need to change. Staff at the university of the future will not only be comfortable with delivery online, they will have adapted their pedagogical approach accordingly and will offer flexibility in how and where students learn.
Skills for the future
The third issue is how the university of the future will reach non traditional groups of students who need to upskill or reskill. Here, alternative credentials - mini-qualifications in a given subject area or capability – will be key to addressing the short-term needs of society and labour markets and offering learning to students who want shorter, sharper learning experiences that deliver an immediate career outcome.
There’s a growing demand for this approach. Big companies like IBM, Google, Amazon and Deloitte don't necessarily require degrees of people they're hiring Instead, these companies are shifting towards ‘new collar’ jobs: entirely new roles in areas such as cybersecurity, data science, artificial intelligence and cognitive business. What matters most for these jobs is aptitude and skills – which is perhaps better obtained through short, focussed training rather than degrees.
In an October 2020 blog post for The Higher Education Policy Institute, FourthRev CEO Jack Hylands, highlighted how increasing numbers of universities are working rapidly towards delivering alternative credentials, building new audiences and delivering meaningful outcomes beyond the traditional degree.
The university of the future will add academic excellence and rigour to the alternative credentials formula and underpin it with the sustained value that university credentials hold with employers.
The student experience
The last issue is how the student experience will be different in the university of the future.
If the university of the future is different – more blended, more distributed, more focussed on alternative credentials and mechanisms of learning – then the student experience of the future may be different too.
Or perhaps it will simply become more of a differentiator. Perhaps some universities will use the richness of the experience to attract students while others will emphasise the utility. Perhaps the university of the future will invite students to select the level of experience that is commensurate with their personal ambition and their purpose. Some universities may even – who knows – contract the student experience out to third party providers.
How will success be measured at the university of the future?
While the pandemic seems a once in a lifetime event, it is, nevertheless, possible that we could see other kinds of significant disruptions. There may therefore be a case for re-framing university ranking metrics around resilience - the capacity to prepare for and respond to crises. Key criteria for resilience could centre on diversification, flexibility and innovation, risk, values, value maintenance, and community outreach. Existing rankings schema touch on some of these, but not through the resilience lens.
A new normal
As the UK moves towards lifting lockdown, we can begin the journey towards that new normal; but it remains important to remember that other parts of the world are still suffering catastrophic outbreaks and that there are large differences of opinion between nations on when the pandemic might be over. The world – and the global market for higher education – is likely to remain in flux for some time yet.
It’s also important to remember that the new normal will almost certainly be different from the old. So, too, will the university of the future.
Alister is a guest on this month's 'Future of Higher Education' episode of our Accommodation Matters podcast - listen now: