Seven ways to equip universities for the challenges of the twenty-first century

Universities can take seven steps to meet the new demands of the twenty-first century, writes Ursula Staudinger (Rector of TU Dresden).
31st March 2021
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One year ago, the coronavirus forced higher education and research facilities around the world to close their campuses and send their students and staff online. Twelve months later, few have returned to business as usual, because ‘usual’ is no longer the goal.

While the pandemic is often cited as the catalyst, in truth, the consequences of the coronavirus point to a fundamental reality of the twenty-first century: namely, global interconnectedness has reached an unprecedented level that impacts all of us, including universities.

It is a reality that presents boundless opportunities for universities, if they are willing to take the leap, and unavoidable risks if they are not.

Universitas: a success model for mastering cultural change

The concept of a university has been around now for almost 1,000 years. Arguably, because universities are important social drivers of productivity and innovation. But also, because universities have been a place to critically engage with ever-changing social challenges and demands and to adapt accordingly.

The interconnected nature of the twenty-first century is characterised by its own set of unique challenges: climate change and the scarcity of resources on our planet; the reality and consequences of demographic change; and the populist trends that can be observed worldwide and are calling into question the legitimacy of institutions – even universities, to name a few.

To address these threats, and also to harness emerging opportunities, once again universities must engage with these new social challenges and help our communities develop solutions. They must grow and develop to meet the new demands of society. Here are seven different steps universities can take.

A university for the twenty-first century

First, universities must strike a balance between retaining the strength of fundamental disciplinary research while fostering more innovative forms of interdisciplinarity. Interdisciplinarity is an imperative in the twenty-first century. Single-discipline research, or even interdisciplinarity in related fields, does not suffice when addressing the problems emerging from the complex system of interdependencies we operate in. This level of complexity must be tackled by multiple disciplines working together towards a common goal on a level playing field. However, fruitful interdisciplinary research can only thrive on solid disciplinary foundations.

Second, not only are we living longer and healthier lives, but thanks to the speed of technical advancements and the globalisation of markets and networks, more and more we live in a society that both demands and fosters non-linear career paths. Be it in response to changing job securities or a change in personal priorities, individuals are pursuing degrees at many different stages of life. Universities must develop study programmes and formats that respond and complement individual lived realities. They have to provide faculty and staff with the tools and opportunities to create these programmes for and with students.

Third, higher education and research facilities must focus on fostering diversity and integration. The integration of the multitude of perspectives linked with gender identities, age groups, socialisation and cultural background and leading a life with chronic disease or handicaps enriches research and teaching opportunities. If a university succeeds in embracing this diversity through a culture of openness and appreciation, it can remain an important engine for the further development of research and innovation. And if it can truly integrate multicultural perspectives into curriculum and research practices, perhaps it can be even more, perhaps it can be a real laboratory for the potential of our multicultural, globalised society?

Fourth, digitisation must be a fundamental goal in all activities: to increase resilience, to reduce the workload of researchers, administrators, and students so that they can focus on their core responsibilities; to use and optimise innovative digital teaching, learning, and examination formats; and to improve efficiency in processes. This requires both more research and more uptake of existing research on the possibilities and challenges of digitalisation for universities.

Fifth, universities must embrace internationalisation in all its activities, from teaching, research and administrative practice to knowledge and technology transfer. Whether it is to ensure competitiveness in a globalised market, to foster and enrich the potential for innovation, to acknowledge the shrinking of our digitalised world, or to address the global, border-defying nature of twenty-first century crises, there is an abundance of reasons why internationalisation must be a cornerstone in any university’s strategy. What is important is that internationalisation is not a buzzword, that universities go beyond hosting international conferences and offer English language study programmes to truly integrate a global perspective into in their lecture halls and curriculum. None of this will be successful in the long run, however, unless we manage to foster a globally-oriented and regionally anchored identity and culture at the university.

Sixth, just as universities cannot ignore the imperative to globalise, they must also acknowledge and embrace their responsibility to be contributing members of society. Thanks to both their continued position of power in knowledge production and the creation of human capital, as well as their sheer political and economic clout in their local communities, higher education institutions have a unique ability to shape public discourse and develop effective solutions to pressing problems of their local and global communities.

Finally, a university is only as strong as the people who drive it. To continue to attract and retain top talent both in the academic and administrative departments, universities must reflect on their role and responsibility as an employer. As globalisation increases the volatility and competitiveness of job markets, universities must put more effort into offering attractive and facilitative working conditions in line with cutting-edge labour research that promote and develop employee potential.

Universities have always had to strike the balance between driving change and bowing to it. Once again, we find ourselves at a crossroads that has only been made more apparent by the impact of the coronavirus on our current models. None of the arguments presented above are unique, and many institutions have done amazing work in addressing one or the other. At TU Dresden, the University Executive Board has developed an ambitious strategy to tackle all seven of these steps conjointly. In the interconnected global world of the twenty-first century, we cannot afford to ignore any of these dimensions, they must be part and parcel of our institution’s DNA.

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