Navigating the unknown in HE

By Dr Sam Grogan (PVC Student Experience, University of Salford) and Dr Graham Holden (HE Consultant and Researcher) 

Drivers for change

In their seminal text Future Shock futurologists Alvin and Heidi Toffler describe a future state in which the perception of individuals and entire societies is of “too much change in too short a period of time”. This, like many of their predictions, proved unerringly accurate with higher education being globally challenged to add value like never before. Universities must be globally connected, locally active and regionally effective. To this end, the traditional role of the university, producing knowledge through research and developing knowledge through teaching is arguably no longer sufficient in and of itself. The nature of these activities must not only result in impact on student outcomes and in research publications, but contribute to social good, economic generation, to the regional community and to the efforts of our global community. At the heart of this contribution lies innovation and idea creation. Developing the people, capabilities and environments which can, in themselves, successfully foster and sustainably develop impactful knowledge and people is a necessary focus for higher education as Universities are being asked to play increasingly prominent (and public) roles in addressing the big issues that face our planet. [1]

In the UK, the challenge landscape for higher education includes external demands and drivers focused upon;

  • The UK productivity challenge; [2]
  • The accelerating development of digital technologies, industry 4.0 and the onset of automation;
  • The need to respond to Governmental agendas and strategies including (in the UK); the UK skills agenda, the Industrial Strategy, the social mobility agenda;
  • The need to explicitly and more effectively demonstrate its value to wider society (the Civic University).

Against this disruptive and challenging wider landscape, UK universities are currently also facing a perfect storm of sector related troubles which may, in the next few years, severely hamper efforts towards adding value across the various change agenda mentioned above, most prominently; the Augar review of University tuition fees, the immediate and long term implications of Brexit, and pension woes across the sector – collectively presenting a web of thorny issues to be dealt with and overcome.

Whilst this perfect storm of sector related issues and the challenges being presented by the wider societal landscape perhaps beckon deeper questions and debate surrounding the future facing fitness of operating infrastructures and business models currently operated in various forms across the UKHE sector, the operating environment writ large also begs (re)consideration of efforts and activities in the arena of teaching and learning. Graduates worldwide now face an increasingly fast-paced, fluid, highly competitive, demanding, glocal workplace. The fiscal, political, social, technological, cultural and environmental forces at play have resulted in an environment of constant and accelerating change, creating challenges for graduates entering the world of work. To survive and prosper in this future state graduates must be more adaptable and capable than ever before.

The Context: Disruption of capabilities toward sustainable career success

To meet the wider challenges of the graduate environment, there is a growing recognition that graduates need varying degrees of enterprising / entrepreneurial / intrapreneurial capabilities if they are to be effective within a constantly evolving context which recognises rapid change as normal. As Toffler predicted, the way to enable students to respond to this context and navigate the unavoidable future shocks is by facilitating students to ‘learn, unlearn and relearn’. Similarly, with the converging change agendas above and the increasing societal and industrial impacts of transformative technologies in mind, it is essential for higher education to recognise that deep disciplinary knowledge is no longer the complete key to sustained and sustainable graduate success, and that knowledge as an endpoint in and of itself no longer equates to power. In place of an industrial landscape which previously sought highly skilled disciplines organised around traditional subjects, a new understanding of what might constitute ‘technical and professional’ can be considered. This future-focused thinking positions interdisciplinarity alongside productive and compassionate relationships, personal resilience and adaptability, as some of the key personal technical and professional capitals on which the sustainable successes of the future may be built.

In order to develop these capabilities-as-capital towards a personalised productivity, and position students for sustained long-term success, change is needed in the dynamic sphere of teaching and learning on two primary fronts;

Disruption of student engagement

Students must engage in (higher) education in a manner which, as a baseline, moves beyond the ‘poor’ transactionalism associated with the notion of being a ‘consumer’ of education-as-product, (acquisition of knowledge-as-commodity) and steps towards the idea of being a ‘connected co-producer’ of their education. This experiential, iterative ideation of a connected future self, placed as a central concern of a students’ engagement, is achieved through a co-created (or, mindful of digital ubiquity and the distinctly fuzzy line between internal and external learning resources), a co-curated, guided, exploratory learning experience: a focused, curious, deliberate (yet sometimes inevitably messy) development of self within a disrupted, pluralistic landscape of work/live/play lived seamlessly across digital and physical domains. 

Disruption of higher education pedagogies

Given this, higher education must look beyond the habitual idea of the traditional degree programmes and associated modes and models of learning, to new means of facilitating the development of these personal capabilities in the graduate as digital global citizen. Teaching in higher education is still predominantly discipline-centric, determining the internal organisation of institutions and the design and delivery of the curriculum. This is largely predicated on the premise that dissemination and acquisition of disciplinary knowledge is the end goal for the tutor and student, rather than being the essential and cultural lens through which flexible, agile and adaptable capabilities-as-capital are gained. However, with the wider landscape above in mind, many universities are starting to highlight and consider a more competency and capability-centric learning journey, which embeds transferable capabilities and interdisciplinary thinking that will enable graduates to thrive in portfolio careers within a fluid volatile connected environment.

Whilst the grains that start a landslide appear to be rolling, there needs to be a significant shift in emphasis in our higher education practice: moving from disciplinary knowledge and traditional andragogies of knowledge acquisition to outward-facing, demand-led, problem-based models of cross-institutional interdisciplinary collaborative teaching and learning. These effectively position the development of a matrix of personal capabilities-as-capital as core curriculum and need to be developed to foster the 21st Century graduate capable of successfully and consistently navigating the unknown.

[1] UN Global Challenges include ageing, population growth and climate change.

[2] All the G7 economies have experienced slower productivity growth since the 2008 financial crash, but the slowdown has been greatest in the UK.

An earlier version of this thought piece was also published on the University Alliance’s Teaching Excellence Alliance’s website.

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