What does the future hold for our universities? From talent engines to tech literacy

Universities are increasingly entrepreneurial, working with partners across borders while navigating ever-more-complex international, national and regional policies. In an ideal world, universities would lead the “ecosystem of knowledge” in which researchers, business leaders and policymakers come together to tackle an array of complex issues – issues like the circular economy and green technology, equal opportunity for decent work and quality education, and city resilience and sustainable urban development. The question is, how far from the reins of power are universities – and why? ~ By Dr Sanae Okamoto

These were the guiding themes of the annual University Industry Interaction Conference hosted by the University Industry Innovation Network (UIIN) in Helsinki, 18-20 June 2019. Now in its seventh year, the conference is one of the largest gatherings in its field, providing more than 500 delegates a platform for sharing knowledge on entrepreneurial universities, collaborative innovation and university-industry interactions.

Universities as life partners

Arno Meerman, CEO of UIIN delivered an inspiring opening speech. He suggested that universities should act as “talent engines” that develop and validate students’ competences. This can be achieved by involving practitioners in designing dual-study programmes, student-practitioner projects or even the overarching curriculum. In this way, universities prepare students for the jobs of the future by certifying their knowledge and skills. This is particularly useful if practitioners become future employers, but on the other hand curricula should not be “held hostage” to the latter. Universities need to keep a balance between preparing students for the labour market while also providing intellectual freedom and stimulation.

Meerman pointed out that universities should become “life partners” that can add or scale up new skills for professionals. He presented the new diversified notion of “students” with three professional life stages: “STUDENTS3: before work, during work and after work”. Future universities should support their graduates during the active working stage to gain more knowledge for upskilling for career up and/or career change, by for example providing accessible Master’s modules and interdisciplinary executive programmes. The after-work stage revolves around giving retirees opportunities for continuous learning while encouraging them to start entrepreneurial projects – because their life experience can be a real asset.

Many universities already offer “mentorship” positions to their alumni to supervise students’ projects and start-ups, so the role of universities as “life partners” is becoming more and more engrained. Clearly, there is mutual benefit for both students and alumni. While the alumni can bring practitioners’ insights and knowledge as discussed above, they can also learn new approaches, theories and technologies that were not available during their student years.

Building science & technology literacy

Novel debates on the role of future universities continued with a stimulating talk by Manuel Dolderer, Co-Founder and President of CODE University of Applied Sciences in Germany. He gave the audience a provocative message from the book, Weapons of Math Destruction. He explored the use of big data and algorithms in a variety of fields, including insurance, advertising, education and policy, and how they lead to decisions that harm the poor, reinforce racism, and amplify inequality.

How to counteract these so-called “weapons”? We can start with self-empowerment, as recommended by Mark Surman from Mozilla Foundation. He said “becoming literate in how the technical world works is equivalent to reading, writing and math. We need to look at this fourth literacy as mainstream”.

A similar line is taken by various UNESCO programmes, which aim to improve science literacy among students throughout the world by ensuring educators use technology in every aspect of their teaching. One related example is our own “Reach & Turn” series of science reporting workshops, which we’ll be co-hosting again with UNESCO in Uruguay from 18-20 September 2019.

Ultimately, the more students understand technology, the more they learn with technology, the more they will harness it to improve their own lives. If universities can educate the next generation of students in advanced technological skills – while respecting the basic value of the scientific method – they will provide an immense benefit to the societies of the future.