Rethinking Higher Education: Five building blocks

It has been repeated so many times, it is now a cliché: Our next thirty years will not look like the last three decades!

If anything, ever since the end of the Cold War, it was mostly peaceful, mostly prosperous for most of the world. However, One can clearly see that some of the building blocks of that world are shifting now and a new ideas environment is emerging. We don't have to be pessimists to know that the lives of our students would be very different from ours.

If we are to design a higher education system today, many things must change. Particularly, there are five foundational assumptions behind how we think about Higher Education, which need rethinking.

First, the idea of SMART - a version of the idea of general intelligence ('g')! We may talk about diversity and inclusion, but fundamentally, higher education and the idea of merit are closely linked. This comes from how we organise the school system, which attempts to separate students into academic and vocational tracks. Even when leaders speak about making college accessible and driving up gross enrolment ratios (GER), they pay homage to this fixed and dated idea of merit. However, we expect, once the students are admitted, the whole system would operate with the idea of GROWTH - that if someone puts in adequate effort, they would be able to achieve mastery in their chosen discipline! But, it has been easier to put the idea of a growth mindset in schools and in workplaces than in Higher Education. Discarding the idea of smart is the first step in the re-imagination of Higher Education in the world we have to live in today.

Second, there is an idea of a lifetime vocation ingrained in Higher Education. The college system is designed to develop a disciplinary identity, a certain way of thinking and approaching problems. A disciplined way of thinking is definitely helpful, but the idea of a lifetime vocation is limiting when no such thing exists. Instead, learners need to approach the questions of career and life with a design mindset to respond to the many twists that they will surely confront in their working lives. This sort of career intelligence is exactly what is needed when things are changing drastically.

Third, the idea of technology as a tool, sitting on the periphery of tasks and lives, needs to change too. Technology has become far more pervasive, and far too intuitive, to be considered peripheral anymore. Instead, the medium is the message: Our technology environment shapes how we live, work and think today. A passive approach to technology, being just a user of it, can have damaging effects on our intellectual engagement and as a consequence, on our productivity. Recognising the central role of technology in our ideas environment - preparing the learners with a sort of digital intelligence - would allow us to shape it. Rather than being slaves, more of us can then become masters of it.

Fourth, the idea of culture as refinement, a tool for social selection, remains at the heart of the college experience. This relates to the historical roots of higher education, providing a way for social elites to recognise each other through manners and language. This 'culture' persists, even when we accept the idea of differences between national cultures (instead of thinking in terms of civilisational hierarchies). Even with intercultural communication, an elite form of engagement is imagined, within a cosmopolitan space, where each one may exhibit some form of their national idiosyncrasy, but be able to adjust to the others and maintain a polite form of pretension. However, the shifting shape of an anti-cosmopolitan world demands a different sort of cultural awareness. This is no longer about tolerating and pretending but about finding a way of operating in and relating with others beyond inauthentic superficiality. In this world, the operating system of the new kind of college needs to be built around cultural intelligence, a form of self-awareness that leads not to tact but to genuine sympathy.

Finally, the idea of bureaucratic authority, a derivative of one's job title and seniority, is fundamental to our higher education systems. However, the changing nature of expertise demands a new way of thinking about authority. In our world, where hierarchies are passé and traditional notions of direct power are abhorred, what our students need is influence. Our learners shouldn't be aiming for a 'manager' title; they should instead be aspiring for recognition of their professional, intellectual and moral authority instead.

Higher education has been pronounced dead many times, and yet it has grown exponentially over the last thirty years. The workplaces are changing and lives are different, but all these made the universities more, not less, relevant. But it must change, not superficially but at the core. A good starting point will be to confront the five fundamental premises and give them a twenty-first-century update.


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