Initiative for an innovative university landscape

The SWITCH foundation recently introduced the FUTURE UNIVERSITY initiative in cooperation with the think tank W.I.R.E. The launch event welcomed over 100 decision-makers from the Swiss university landscape and gave them much to think about regarding trends in education and research. And while the event offered no strategic panaceas for universities, there were a few unconventional solutions.

Text: Séverine Jagmetti, published on 29.06.2018

The Swiss university landscape is undergoing a transformation. Digitalisation, increasing international competition and growing individualisation present universities with new challenges. How will knowledge be communicated effectively in the future, and what are the skills that universities will need to equip students with? And what kind of ecosystems will we find in tomorrow’s university landscape? Guests at the first FUTURE UNIVERSITY event on 13 June 2018 received some preliminary answers to these and other questions.

The main agenda item was the presentation of results from a national study on the university of the future. A practical counterpoint to this was provided by two international pioneers who examine standard teaching and learning methods with a critical eye and strike out on new paths.

Joint effort for Switzerland as an education and research location

The SWITCH foundation sees itself as an integral component of the Swiss university community and is determined to play its part in ensuring that Switzerland remains at the pinnacle of research and innovation. For SWITCH to continue developing integrated ICT solutions for universities, it has to know and understand the ways in which universities are developing. This also ties in with the traditional role of ‘enabler’ that SWITCH fulfils by developing services in collaboration with the community and in an interdisciplinary way. Because of this experience, SWITCH realised early on that the FUTURE UNIVERSITY initiative could only function as a collective effort.

Working with W.I.R.E. means working with a study partner that can boast a long track record of engaging with global developments in science, business and society, as well as a broad national and international network. In particular it is W.I.R.E.’s interdisciplinary methodological approach that makes it such a good partner for the identification and evaluation of future developments in the Swiss university landscape.

"The aim is to start a broad-based conversation about the long-term solutions we need to ensure that Switzerland continues to successfully defend its position as a global leader in research and innovation in the future."

Dr Andreas Dudler, SWITCH

The FUTURE UNIVERSITY vision is primarily about proactive monitoring of long-term education and research developments in Switzerland, as well as highlighting concrete options that will allow universities to make the most of these developments. The aim is to provide Swiss university managers with inspiration for strategic decisions. A further aim, according to Dr Andreas Dudler, Managing Director of SWITCH, is to "start a broad-based conversation about the long-term solutions we need to ensure that Switzerland continues to successfully defend its position as a global leader in research and innovation in the future".

Universities from a bird’s-eye view

In presenting the study results, the W.I.R.E. representatives focused on providing a theoretical illustration of the future of universities. The think tank deliberately chose an integrated approach to provide a macro-level view of the transformation.

As well as digitalisation, which is transforming not just administrative processes, teaching and research but also communication with the outside world, factors such as increased life expectancy, the trend toward cost-cutting and changing working conditions will all help define the university of the future. The coming years will see teaching and research increasingly taking place in a global context. The key framework conditions will be mass-media mechanisms, democratisation that will advance to the point of completely unrestricted access to knowledge, and advanced individualisation.

W.I.R.E. defends human capabilities in the digital age

Universities have to take account of the opportunities and benefits of digital transformation in their strategic deliberations, whether in the administrative field, for research or for teaching – that much is certain. Along with the traditional lecture hall there will be new tools for disseminating knowledge. Universities will need to skilfully combine virtual and analogue teaching methods. They will need to allow for the fact that learning is becoming more individual, more flexible and less centralised – and can be a lifelong endeavour. Personalised curricula will become the standard.

Universities are under pressure to offer programmes that are clearly positioned and reflective of market requirements. This can lead to a thinning out of faculties. This, in turn, jeopardises the kind of interdisciplinary and creative research that often paves the way for innovation. New professional fields call for new skills. Universities need to better reflect this transformation by stepping up cooperation with stakeholders from society and business. Disciplines that generate no direct benefits are facing tough times. The decisive factor here will be demonstrating the added value of these skills and engaging in active dialogue with the political sphere.

It is important that universities remain independent sites for reflection – for teaching and research.

And particularly decisive for modern teaching and learning methods, as well as research, is the related technological infrastructure they put in place. Data security and how they handle large volumes of data are key success factors for universities. Technical transformation offers universities and libraries an opportunity to establish a kind of ‘overarching knowledge database’, and to manage it responsibly.

That being said, the changes we are currently seeing in universities are not so much revolutionary as evolutionary. Despite digital transformation, the focus will always be on people. It is important that universities remain independent sites for reflection – for teaching and research, in other words. And it is important that these sites continue to reinforce critical thinking, empathy, creativity and the active shaping of the future – skills that no robot will ever master.

Failure as a recipe for success

Christer Windeløv-Lidzéliu is the principal of the Kaospilot Business & Design School in Denmark. His school very much subscribes to the principle of learning by doing. He is convinced that learning is a highly individual pursuit, and that the first thing you need to learn is what is the most effective way to learn. You have to try things out and, inevitably, some of those things will fail. For Christer Windeløv-Lidzéliu, "fail fast, fail early, fail often" is an important maxim for fostering innovation.

The ideal university is real-time, reality-affixed and relational.

Ultimately, the most important thing for him is that students develop a sense of themselves as people, of their abilities, of the community and of leadership. Success has proven him right, with many of his former students now forging ahead as budding entrepreneurs. In his view, the ideal university is "real-time, reality-affixed and relational".

Learning by degrees – or levels

Olivier Crouzet is Director of Pedagogy at 42.fr, an IT academy that has done away with lectures and lecturers completely. In fact, it comprises little more than a small team of teaching advisers and an intranet for making contacts and organising meetings. Everything else happens through peer learning and peer evaluation. Students set their own pace and collect points – it’s almost like a video game in which you advance level by level. In this way, the students learn to think critically and creatively, to find and evaluate the right information, to solve problems and to collaborate. It is not just the teaching and learning concept that is innovative but also the means of access. At 42.fr, students don’t need to present prior educational qualifications, nor do they pay fees. What counts is talent, and they have a sophisticated selection process for sniffing it out.

Students must build on their abilities, develop individualised profiles and think critically.

This innovative school model isn’t an aim in itself; rather, it arose from the pressing need for IT specialists in France. Since it was founded in 2013, many students have received offers for internships and jobs before they even completed training. The feedback from employers has been consistently positive.

Crouzet advocates close interaction between universities and the labour market. Students must build on their abilities, develop individualised profiles and think critically. What they need, as he puts it, is an "agile state of mind to face the unknown".

More information: Speaker biographies (german)

FUTURE UNIVERSITY initiative

With this event in Bern, SWITCH and W.I.R.E. kick-started the discussion about the university of the future. Prior to this, no platform in Switzerland was systematically addressing this issue. The goal of the initiative is collaboratively to identify developments ahead of time, foster ecosystems and drive innovation. The initiative is thus helping to ensure that Switzerland continues to successfully defend its position as a global leader in research and innovation.

For further information or if you have any suggestions, please contact the SWITCH organising committee.

FUTURE UNIVERSITY study

For the FUTURE UNIVERSITY study, W.I.R.E. chose an integrated approach that would enable the most comprehensive overview of the future of Swiss universities in the age of digitalisation. They conducted wide-ranging interviews with experts from the university field and supplemented their insights with desktop research.

The complete study will be available in late summer 2018. If you are interested, you are welcome to register to be one of the first to receive the study.

We are happy to accept orders for the FUTURE UNIVERSITY printed poster at any time.

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