Of all areas of public life, universities have proved to be among the most resistant to the digital disruption that is ripping through businesses, politics and ideas.
As Sir Anthony Seldon has argued so powerfully in his recent book The Fourth Education Revolution, too many governments continue to invest in a factory model for higher education. Mesmerised by international league tables, exam performance and the need for funding, administrators have narrowed what students study. Selection is too rooted in narrow academic performance, rather than potential. Technology is increasing the workloads of academics, instead of freeing them for groundbreaking research and teaching.
As a result, higher education no longer enhances opportunity and social mobility in the way it should. Parents continue to expect their kids to follow the same paths that took their generation through university and into jobs that will not exist in the future. Learners leave university thinking that their education is over, not just beginning. They may have gained top grades and degrees, but there is no guarantee that they will have the knowledge, skills and character to be positive members of society.
But research we released this week at Towards Global Learning Goals shows that higher education is now at a critical point in its evolution. The fastest growing businesses are demanding skills that universities don't currently develop. Enlightened governments are adopting new ways of teaching and assessing emotional intelligence. A growing number of university reformers are teaching young people to be kind, curious and brave, and to adapt to different cultures, environments and economic models.
Countries such as Singapore and the UAE are rolling out 21st-century skills and character curriculums. As The National reported last week, the Mohammed bin Rashid School of Government in Dubai has now abandoned exams altogether. This is a perfect example of forward-looking educational thinking. As technology has evolved, people have come to absorb information and remember differently. The old skills of rote learning are now less valuable than the ability to interpret information quickly and in innovative ways. These changes are working, too: happy and motivated students learn better.
So what can we expect at a university of the future?
Firstly, it will be more accessible. Not just in terms of equality of opportunity. But as a resource for all of society, not just a small group who study there for three years. The university of the future will become a hub for sharing knowledge, not a refuge for hoarding it. It will offer more programmes for those who choose not to attend full time, allowing them to combine their learning with work and life. As more young people seek to self-educate, including via online platforms, universities will face an economic imperative to keep up. The university will once again become an idea, not a building.
It will also be creative and collaborative. Twenty-first-century curriculums will go far beyond employability or the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, and towards preparing the learner to contribute to society. It will develop citizens of a global world, with the ability to connect ideas, environments, and places, to experience failure, to solve problems and to build their character.
Students will study how humans developed, from cave paintings to driverless cars, how we learnt to live together, and how we can protect the planet on which we live. Education will refocus on how to learn rather than just what to learn. Future graduates will be equipped to adapt to a world in which industries will disappear, and in which we will need to work together in new ways across cultures and societies. They will have a better understanding of how we can manage our mental and physical health, and how best to organise our lives.
As artificial intelligence replaces mechanical tasks, and more leisure time is created, universities will cultivate the soft skills such as play and creative experimentation that will be key to our economic survival. As Harvard education professor Howard Gardner puts it: “Don’t ask how intelligent anyone is; but rather, how are they intelligent?”
Learning will be more human. The institutions to thrive will be those that harness personalised learning and protect individual choices to ensure that students are able to maintain their autonomy and individualism. They will avoid a standardised approach to education that ignores local issues or simply spreads and reinforces elitist structures across the world. A university of the future will need to lead the ethical debate about technology and humanity. What are the human values that we want to imprint in technology? How do we live with the machines?
Like everything else, a university of the future will be more digital. In an industry marked by rising costs and student debt, blockchain and artificial intelligence technologies will allow universities to automate their administrative processes with more confidence, gaining efficiency and transparency, and to automate knowledge and memory-based teaching. This means more time, resources and energy for learning, teaching and researching.
At their best, universities help us access the best of the knowledge and wisdom that humanity has built up over millennia. But an industrial education model, created in the 19th century and updated for the mass market of the 20th century is no longer delivering. The next education renaissance will not be led by those who have traditionally controlled higher education, but by pioneering educators, institutions and governments – and possibly by those currently denied the opportunity of higher education. Young people will liberate themselves to unleash the ingenuity and creativity that they will need to navigate challenges ahead.
It is time to reimagine higher education. The universities that understand these challenges and opportunities will become the universities of the future. The rest will be a study of what happens when institutions fail change with the times.
Tom Fletcher is a former UK ambassador and adviser to three prime ministers. He is an adviser at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy, visiting professor at New York University Abu Dhabi and the author of The Naked Diplomat: Power and Politics in the Digital Age