The Future of Universities

Higher Education in the 21st Century.
File Photo
File Photo

Enough information about the current pandemic is being circulated to commoners. They need to practice it, and not just keep on reading more. These are the days of solitude for many; contemplation and reflection for others. This social-detox is an opportunity for those who want to capitalize on it, by studying and thinking what they couldn't, when the world was normal and calendars were full. For those of us who are concerned about the higher education locally, need to absorb what's happening globally, and what we ought to do once we are onto the other side of the pandemic.

If we have to come up with a problem statement of our highereducation system, it would be: No cognitive tools in graduates to succeedpersonally or professionally in a highly complex world.

Following are the suggestions that one can come up with, fromthe latest literature about the future of higher education. As of now, only oneuniversity (Minerva) in the US seems to have implemented all of these. In fact,they have built this unusual university based on such principles. These won'tbe exhaustive though.

University Goals:

The goals that a university must ensure that students haveaccomplished, when they graduate, are as follows:

1) Leadership & working with others: It's true that theworld needs leaders in every sphere of life, but not everyone will be a leaderat all the times. We see over-emphasis on leadership skills all over, butwhat's being missed is that graduates should know when to lead and when tofollow, and how to follow. At times, the quality of following a leader is theneed of an hour so that team succeeds and achieves bigger purposes.

2)Understanding Innovation: Again, this has been emphasizeddisproportionately. Innovation is great, but this should not be misconstrued asreinventing the wheel. The graduates must know how to use what has beenaccomplished, properly, before they think of innovations.

3)Thinking broadly & adaptably: The only constant is'change'. No student can be taught for a specific job, and even if s/he is,that job may well disappear by the time student graduates. This is why it'snecessary to give them intellectual-tools to grow and master those jobs thatare non-existent at the moment. Given this unpredictability, the ability toadapt is paramount, and it's the broad education that can impart it.

4) Attaining global perspective: We cannot teach globalperspective in a classroom. There are only two ways: One is to attract studentsfrom various countries with different world-views and Two, is to take studentsto a few countries and teach a portion of their curriculum there-along withlocal co-curricular activities.


The real aim is to take these catch-phrases from deadmission statements written on the rusted boards and unimpressive websites, andenliven them in real time. It's not that innovative ideas are needed to cureour universities. It's that the ideas already propounded need to be put intopractice. This argument is in line with the Point 2 above- UnderstandingInnovation.

Four Core Competencies that should underpin the entireprogram/course/degree, as per the book 'Building an International Universityand the Future of Higher Education' (The MIT Press):

1)Thinking Critically

2)Thinking Creatively

3)Communicating Effectively.

4)Interacting Effectively.

For each of the four core competencies, there has to be setsof learning goals, habits of mind, and foundational concepts. Thesecompetencies or its associated learning goals should not be separate courses.Instead, the entire curriculum is to be so designed that these competenciesform its bedrock. Given the paucity of space here, it won't be possible todelve into them here.

Vocational or Unstructured: Another debate in the academiccircles is whether the education should be vocational & specialized orcompletely unstructured. The former would essentially mean that everyone wouldhave a different education since it would be peculiar to one's field of study,while in the latter nothing would build on anything, and in this form ofeducation, there is no consideration of potential utility of knowledge. However, the ideal lies exactly between the two sides of this argument. It'sthe middle path where broad knowledge is conveyed to everyone, but it'sintelligently structured so that the program/course gradually tapers towardtheir major/concentration in the end. This leads to one of thefoundational principles of Minerva University in the United States- one of themost innovative institutions of our times: Curriculum must be structured,wherein even the general education and electives would be coherent and cogent, letalone the major. They say that education is a brain surgery. We can't open& then think. It's all to be pre-planned.

Content: Another foundational principle is that the content should not be the focus. How many students even remember what they were taught, let alone utilizing it at their work? Instead, what's more important is: How to know where to find information, how to evaluate it, and what to do with it?

Lecturing is the worst way of teaching and learning. As perbrain scans done to students, in one study, their brain and the brain of asleeping person could not be differentiated. Usually, students feelre-energized after the class is over. This should be reverse. If the mind isbusy learning during the class, it should be tired right after.  Lecturingis not student-centric; active learning is.

Seminality: Courses should be seminal. This means that specific key material should be included, from which much can grow, on its own. These are crucial skills and fundamental knowledge. They are generative, prompting, and promoting intellectual growth. The courses are to be engineered in a way that they convey seminal skills. This signifies that it should be thoroughly decided as to what they should be learning.The importance of broad context should not be unaddressed. If we think of all-inclusive positions like those of the Prime Ministers, CEOs, Presidents etc., we would never perceive them as people of one-dimensional knowledge.

Far Transfer should be the key concept in the21st century university system. Far Transfer occurs when studentsapply what they have learned in one context to a situation in a different time& place- one that- on the surface does not resemble the original context.Even Near-Transfer, where the context is the same, is usually difficult but theFar-Transfer is exceedingly complicated, if it's not practiced in a university.Since it's the most important concept, an example from Stephen Kosslyn would begermane. We study 'Sunk Cost'. If you've already spent a million buildingsomething, and it'd take another million to complete, and you receive a newassessment that the total value is going to be just half a million- once yourproject is ready, should you spend another million? You should not, since yourinvestment is sunk, and you should only consider your future investment vs.future return. Everyone who studies business knows this. There's nothing newwith that. Now, if you've spent 5 years paying to get a degree, but you aren'tgetting anywhere; and you have to pay for the 6th year. Is it worthspending more time and money just because you have already put in 5 years oryou should reflect on the limits of your ability? Who would think that theconcept of Sunk Cost would apply in such a disparate context, but it does. Thiswas a small casual example but the concept of Far Transfer is phenomenallynecessary. It's not enough to have a structured curriculum. Teaching iseffective when there's an assessment system, in which, the faculty isallowed to follow each student's progress in applying these concepts indifferent contexts.

Faculty Research: Another major problem has becomeresearch-first for the faculty. Research is massively important for theuniversity faculty, but their primary job should remain teaching. If all theirpromotions are based on research output, teaching takes the hit. Teachingimpactfully needs to be heavily incentivized. And the concepts ofinter-disciplinarity, trans-disciplinarity, and muliti-disciplinarity needto be employed.

The points mentioned above have been explained briefly. Itwas not plausible to discuss them all in one column. Those who are into highereducation may not need detailed explanation. However, this should set the ballrolling, and as & when this pandemic lets us, we must to work on the groundto come up with a real transformative institution that changes the landscape ofhigher education in J&K for good, and leads the way for others to emulate.

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