This week we were at the 1st international Education Conference at the Universidad San Ignacio de Loyola, in Peru.
As you might imagine, the discussion was lively and full of insight and ideas. Here, we do our best to summarise the main points of what was discussed and the responses to these extremely pressing questions.
A lot of discussion these days circles around whether qualifications are as desirable or necessary as they were 20 years ago. The feeling in conference was certainly that they are still centrally important in their role in reassuring employers of certain quality standards and outcomes. That is something that universities, of course, do very well indeed.
What was clear from the outset, was that skills and competencies are not just important, but of equal importance to the mastery of knowledge in each domain. Employers are looking for graduates who stand out, and shine as individuals with differentiated skills and approaches. There is strength, as ever, in diversity.
Employers are increasingly said to prize the skills of cross-cultural communication, innovation, leadership, and digital literacy for all roles across the board. These are now considered core skills for graduates and in high demand.
The competencies of critical thinking, creativity, resilience and the ability to self motivate were also high on the agenda. Complex problem solving and emotional intelligence were also central. Of course an academic qualification tells us what the person knows, but not what they can do or how they are.
Interviews and selection processes are hugely costly, so employers are increasingly turning to universities to broaden out how they evidence skills and competencies so that the transcripts reflect more of the person and less of the academic competence.
From the discussion around the previous question, the answer to this one will come as no surprise. So much of traditional teaching in many universities has focused on academic credentials. It is understandable that a degree should be taught by someone holding a masters, and a masters course taught by a PhD holder, but there are two issues if we stop there.
The first issue is that if the teacher does not have relevant and recent experience of the professional sector outside the university, they will not be able to help students prepare for it. This does not mean that academics need to combine their teaching with a professional role, but that more links and knowledge sharing with industry is necessary. This is not "guest speakers" and other tokenistic approaches, but rather full knowledge-sharing networks and partnerships with agile and fluid communication between institution and industry. The second issue is the pedagogical support necessary to reach a new generation of learners. Delivering a lecture to a hall packed with 20-year-olds (who could simply google the information if they wanted to have it delivered like this) will just not do. It is no small task to engage learners more actively, to understand the internal motivations of learning and the need to express choice, exert control and engage experientially with the content. This, however, is critical. We need to understand learning differences, diversity in the classroom, and the fact that many learners in international universities may already have come through an education system that is progressive and learner-centered/directed. Much is expected of an international university which is preparing not just a generation of workers, but engaged and active global citizens who have had opportunities to direct the course of their learning in meaningful ways. This means that investing in pedagogical support and also in a more focused recruitment and selection process will be key.
Internationalization at home (IaH) is defined by the EAIE as "Any international related activity with the exception of outbound student and staff mobility". That is very broad, but this also offers a lot of scope for opportunity.
The typical interpretation is an activity such as summer schools, or inviting guest lecturers or even a guest cohort of students from another country to spend a semester with their host. However, the conference discussed this more broadly as part of an approach to global citizenship.Embedding a more global approach in existing courses sounds like a huge overhaul of curricula, but it need not be so. In any field, whether it is economics and business or engineering and accounting, there is opportunity to look at how things work from varying political, moral, social, spiritual and environmental perspectives. It is not only about examples and case studies, but by engaging students in what their responsibilities are as global citizens. Having a diverse student body helps enormously with having rich discussions around this, but technology makes it easy to partner and connecting with other institutions worldwide. Making sure our students are aware of how their futures connect to the Sustainable Development Goals, and how they can find their place in an inclusive and increasingly global professional world, is an area that the conference agreed was crucially important.
Most of the discussion on this topic centered around digital internationalization. If more students are willing to study an online bachelors, masters or professional degree, and the quality of teaching and learning can grow to support a positive experience, then this opens up the market in a very different way.
The major asset of this is not only a whole new area to consider beyond the campus-based programmes, but also the move towards more asynchronous learning. With time zones putting certain learners at a serious disadvantage, there is a strong argument to move outside time-bound delivery of classes. The live events can then be focused more on exploration and discussion, and be offered at different times to suit an international student body.
Not only this, but the lockstep nature of synchronous learning can also be more flexible. Students can pause learning, stretch some modules and condense others to fit their own interests, external pressures, and even managing work and/or family responsibilities at the same time. It remains to be seen whether this shift will mature into a stable new market of students who are willing to study internationally from home, but it does present a huge opportunity to rethink some of the more restrictive structures of higher education within the emerging digital landscape.
This does again mean investing in learning design and pedagogical support as well as more agile technologies but there is no reason this could not also be used for blended format learning even with student who have chosen to study on campus.
Not everyone could agree on this point and no wonder! We are still in the grip of the crisis and, with COVId-19 variants and shifting political reactions worldwide, there is still much uncertainty.
One strong school of thought in the discussion was that, even if higher education will find itself transformed after 2020-1, it will not be because of what we learned when the pandemic started, but rather what we learned when we tried to go back.
This is an interesting time now, as students and teachers have had direct experience in working remotely and, as we return to on-campus classes, they can directly compare how each learning approach and environment suits them. There is a lot of discussions yet to come, and there was a lot of agreement around the need to listen and seek engagement around what comes next.
Some in the discussion felt that people craved "normality" and wanted things to return to the way they were. The on-campus physical experience was discussed as a great rite of passage in a person's life, and something idealized by the generations before. How this will impact behavior is yet to be understood.
The general feeling seems to be: this time of change is not over yet, and it may have hardly begun. Create opportunities to dialogue and listen, measure and learn, and keep an open mind as to how our sector may need to change in the years to come.
The one theme that ran through the conference discussion was wellbeing, community and purpose. We all agreed that the pandemic had given us space to look at the things we take for granted, rediscover the things we appreciate, and remember to value each other and our sense of guiding purpose in education. With that at heart, the rest will come.