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How should universities respond to 21st century challenges?

The University of Lincoln's Mary Stuart, vice chancellor, and Liz Shutt, director of policy, explore the challenges facing universities in the 21st century and suggest how they should respond.
This article is more than 5 years old

Mary Stuart is director of leadership development at Minerva and was vice chancellor of the University of Lincoln

Liz Shutt is Director of Policy at the University of Lincoln and Greater Lincolnshire LEP

The 21st century is creating profound changes across our globe, in our economies, our societies, our nations and our cultures.

Forms of work and working patterns are evolving. As our national economies are increasingly interdependent, the old certainties of Western power are being challenged and new powerhouses are emerging to challenge old authorities.

As technology changes and develops, employment and daily life are being radically reshaped with whole categories of employment being created and others disappearing. New professions will emerge which require new skills, but more importantly, a greater ability to understand and embrace change along with the ability to adapt and think creatively will be necessary. The scale and pace of change requires something different from universities.

21st Century Lab, led by the University of Lincoln, is designed to open up thinking on what and how the higher education sector should develop. The project’s framework is driven by contributions from different voices telling us about the challenges facing us in the future. Our contributors are not from within higher education, nor are they the usual suspects we often hear from. We have been speaking to social entrepreneurs, investors, technologists, social and cultural thinkers, engineers, journalists, and economists from across the world to gather wide-ranging views. These are being collated and will be published later this year as a provocation for our sector to consider and respond to.

We will challenge ourselves through this process. The next phase will be the establishment of an HE thought group from institutions and policy groups that will produce recommendations on the purpose of HE in the 21st century. Universities have a role not only to ride the wave, anticipating and preparing for change, but vitally, to shape and drive the 21st century as it continues to unfold. A university is in a unique position to do this as a universitas, a whole, with a melting pot of research, knowledge exchange and teaching activities. We provide the thinking, talent and workforce that will enable much of this change, inform it and drive it.

As a starting point, we are primarily concerned with three drivers of change.

Rapid technological transformation

As outlined in our previous blog, we have been giving significant thought to the impact of technological change and the role of universities as a result of this. Technology is so pervasive that it seems to eclipse everything else. Industrial digitalisation and the fourth industrial revolution is indeed driving rapid change across society, disrupting work, careers and life patterns. Its reach is uneven, contradictory and, as with any disruption, unpredictable. Many argue that work as we know it, the daily grind, will disappear, but we do not yet have the social and economic policies to address the consequences of such a radical change. Technological change has the power to be the ultimate leveller providing access to learning, shaking up education beyond our imaginations. There is a real need for us to think about what the value added is from our teaching and how we prioritise these aspects to support future generations.

Shifting economic geography

Hyper-globalisation is a well-documented driver for the changes we are experiencing. We must remember that the financial crash in 2007 was a Western crash, with capital shifting East and reducing the dominance of our political and economic power. The context for these changes goes back to the later part of the 20th Century but the impacts are now really biting in the West.

The export share of global GDP has more than doubled since the 1960s with new economic powers emerging – first Japan in the 1970s, and more recently, countries in other parts of the East such as China and India. Increased globalisation has resulted in increased trade and more complex supply chains and has made a greater variety of business models possible. Economic theory has traditionally dictated that regional inequalities will reduce as places benefit from globalisation. Indeed, as Goldin and Kutarna point out, for the first time in history, poverty is declining. In 1991, two-fifths of humanity lived in extreme poverty, now it’s one-eighth and the number of people alive now with an advanced degree exceeds the total number of degrees ever awarded prior to 1980.

But regional economic divergence is the new reality. Uneven redevelopment is a feature we can all recognise; with the growth of financial capital trading in cities like London over-heating while other places in the UK have been left behind. It has even been suggested that the UK no longer makes sense as a single currency zone. This phenomenon can be seen across all Western democracies and has a stark impact on the quality of life. For example, a child born in the bottom 20% in wealthy San Francisco has twice as much chance as a similar child in Detroit of ending up in the top 20% as an adult. This disparity was a central focus in the Industrial Strategy White Paper with the UK’s long tail of low productivity singled out as the reason for uneven growth, wages and living standards. These inequalities form the basis of an increasing interest in the concept of inclusive growth, a challenge to the dominance of growth alone as a measure for success.

Legitimation crisis

The 21st century has produced a wave of populism, which has manifested in different ways across the globe. These movements can arise from different political positions and from outside traditional parties or movements. Part of this growth can be explained by rising inequality in the West, but its expression in other parts of the world is more to do with rising aspirations. What is common between all such movements is a distrust and challenge to established 20th century systems. The leadership of all types of institution and organisation are implicated in anti-establishment movements – including universities and large corporates, politicians and traditional political parties, commentators in established media and world leaders. This amounts to a crisis of legitimation in our social structures and systems.

This legitimation crisis creates space for new and disruptive models and thinkers. In the second half of the 20th century, ideas often emerged on the margins and were taken up by the centre. Now they emerge anywhere and are taken up, explode and then may disappear quite rapidly. Small start-ups disrupt global organisations and traditional routes through to social mobility are also being challenged. Many of these movements are fuelled by social media, creating what some have called New Power, where the traditional concept of monetary exchange is being challenged and reinvented in the virtual word and the concept of value is volatile and insecure. Social media has disrupted elites placing the production and sharing of information in the hands of new groups who respond in terms of their environment and set of experiences. This moves the conversation away from intellectuals and politicians who often share similar backgrounds. The very pace and spread of information also challenges any form of reflective thinking.

The role of the expert as a gatekeeper of knowledge is being challenged. This has significant implications for all producers; arts and culture, politics and political systems, organisational structures and the world of work and financing, and, of course, for education.

Where does this lead us and how should universities respond?

These are the core questions for 21st Century Laboratory, #C21stLab. We will be looking to our contributors to help steer and crystallise the most important elements that should be of concern to universities. This will likely reach across society; the economy; business and work; lifestyles and the individual; culture; and creativity. The task will not be about creating consensus; we wish to draw out a diverse range of perspectives that will challenge thinking and current approaches – and we’d love to hear from you.

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