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The Future of Higher Education: Vision and Purpose

We can’t look at the future of higher education without considering what the future of work looks like for the average business. Why? Because university isn’t an ivory tower where the elite gather together to philosophize in Platonian style. Higher education continues to fulfill its original purpose of serving a community, but now it’s on a much broader scale and with vastly different agendas.

Major advancements in business are happening all the time, and formal education must respond to the needs of society. It’s becoming increasingly vital to consider the future of higher education as a mechanism for not only developing intelligent minds but also integrating liberal arts with professionalism. As such, future trends in education demand a greater focus on orienting students toward a career that feeds a growing economic need for technological prowess and innovative ideas. It is without question that developing a more socially equitable world begins at the level of education too.

So, where do we begin? Let’s start by considering what higher education is––and was––really for.


The History of Higher Education


What is the real purpose of education? Some will say it is to serve a growing and rapidly changing business economy. Others will remark that it is to expand minds and construct knowledge. Both are correct and valid perspectives, and we can recognize that critical thinking and knowledge development are necessary fundamentals for business innovation.

If we look to the past for answers, we see that not much has changed over time. History reveals that many universities were created to meet a nation’s social and economic needs.

For example, the first university, coined as such, was in Bologna, Italy, in 1088. Students were trained to develop a skill within a particular profession, namely law, in response to a national interest in studying a recently rediscovered central text in Roman law.

Many of these first European universities were also closely associated with the Church, which had a massive influence on social order and political agenda. Eventually, they became more secular, even though religious teachings continued to be a significant part of the curricula (1).



Did you know that the oldest university in the world, still in operation, is The University of Al-Karaouine, also known as Al-Quaraouiyine University, founded by Fatima al-Fihri in 859 in Fes, Morocco.



What Challenges Does the Future of Education Face?


The job market is changing rapidly, with an increased focus on digital technology and globalization. When it comes to business, we’re no longer self-contained nations, but rather a jumble of competing markets. For this reason, universities cannot remain silos of knowledge construction, continually spitting out newbie professionals to the workforce. Instead, innovation must happen in both the academic and professional spheres simultaneously, in collaboration.

We can’t ignore that higher education and business have an interdependent relationship.

One of the major issues affecting the future of higher education is that students are ill-prepared to enter the workforce and succeed. There is a chasm between what’s happening in universities and what various industries need to sustain a growing world and respond to an increasingly dynamic economy. While higher education has become more accessible than at any other time in history, fewer students are equipped to handle the challenges of a continuously changing business world.

And that’s right now. What does a future that features quantum computing hold?

Furthermore, the global community has become a melting pot of disparate cultures. We’re all in this together, so we must capitalize on each others’ strengths and knowledge to foster a harmonious society. Educational institutions reflect the real-world landscape, and universities have a moral imperative to deliver socially-responsive curricula.

So, what can we do? The logical answer is to prepare students for what they’ll inevitably confront when they enter the workforce. That is, arguably, a problematic and somewhat reductionist response to a complex issue. Does such a pragmatic approach dilute the essence of higher education down to a watery, professionalized version of the real thing? Does it risk positioning universities on the precipice of becoming nothing more than institutions for professionalized learning?

It’s a pertinent argument, but let’s earmark tradition for another discussion and attend to the boiling pot. Several questions surround the future of education as it concerns the practical business world:

What are universities doing to prepare students for careers in a future that is verging on full automation and artificial intelligence?

What skills will students need to negotiate the age of disruptive technologies, often referred to as the 4th Industrial Revolution?

What learning tools and technologies will become as necessary tomorrow as the Internet is for today’s students?

Furthermore, with the types of advancements projected for the future, higher education will have to involve more than just add-ons to its existing structure and system. The way learning and teaching occur right now will require a massive fundamental shift in both attitudes and methods.

New strategies will have to dissolve dated ones, calling for more active collaboration between the academic and business worlds. Theory and praxis will have to be mutually supportive.

And it will be imperative for students to sample the real world of business before embarking, fresh-faced and thin-skinned, onto its mine-marked territory.


What Higher Education Needs Right Now


With the resistance to creating business-oriented learning environments out of higher education institutions, we have to ask, is the future of education grounded in pragmatic application or idealistic vision? Can it support both?

Most students attending university are seeking to develop an edge in an extremely competitive global professional marketplace, not because they’re interested in the world of academia. The motivation to get a university education lies more in the need to obtain a degree to be recognized enough to get a job and start a career. That makes a university education somewhat utilitarian, a notion I’m sure makes some ancient scholar rolling over in his grave! 

But the future of higher education begs for so much more than that. As Bob Dylan reminds us, the times are a-changin’, and we must change along with them. We need graduates that are motivated to do their life’s work in alignment with the needs of the world. We need dynamic and contextualized curricula that respond to rapid change; it must become more interdisciplinary, adaptive, and flexible. That means, systematized learning has to go in favor of an integrated solution that meets global requirements and keeps students personally invested.

Students need as many opportunities as possible to connect hands-on with the real business world while they’re negotiating their own vocational path.

Higher education must address what’s actually happening in the real world and help create solutions that are based on critical contemplation and analysis––hallmarks of what some might refer to as antiquated education. Institutions need to devote more considerable effort to linking up knowledge construction with global business development by providing students with opportunities to engage in interactive approaches to learning.


Stepping Into The Future


The direction of business toward increasing digital technologies and automation denotes future trends in education. Tomorrow’s graduates must be equipped to enter the workforce with a broader skillset than what today’s grads have. What’s more, the conventional full-time job with two weeks’ holiday is becoming less attractive––and less necessary––as more young people open their eyes to the possibility that “career” is not only dynamic, it’s optional.

Thousands of possibilities lie beyond the threshold of the institution, and our world needs minds that can not only adapt to change but also lead creative transformation toward new ways of being, living, and doing business. Such innovation will require an intelligent and sophisticated combination of vision and purpose. Action learning and the transdisciplinary collaboration in open innovation are examples of essential implements in the future of higher education for building a tomorrow not sold to AI ends. We still want human intelligence, even with all its faults. 



1. https://dailyhistory.org/How_did_universities_develop%3F

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About the Author

Timo Kerzel is Co-Founder of TELANTO - the digital platform to engage and scale university-industry collaboration, counting on a +15 year track record in global marketing, business development and business management in various companies including SAP. He holds an Executive MBA from IESE Business School, Barcelona and his B.A. from the School of Management & Innovation (Steinbeis) in Berlin. Furthermore certified as a Design Thinking Coach from HPI in Potsdam, Timo is passionate about customer and user centric solutions, creating true value for TELANTO's “Academic Business Network” Community.

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