Major changes usually happen when unexpected events force people to adopt new ideas. Such an unexpected event was the French revolution, which forced the people to reassess the ideas of human rights. Or the ´Millennium-bug´ which - if you remember - caused a great deal of distress for banks and computer owners alike, but offered India the opportunity to provide the biggest pool of engineers in order to fix the problem, thus launching the Indian IT sector. Companies like Microsoft, IBM, Adobe, Google/Alphabet are now led by Indian engineers. Other examples might include the personal computer, the rise of the internet, and many more.
As we are speaking, the COVID-19 pandemic is reshaping how universities work, through forcing remote education (a field which was already disrupted in the past few years by digital educational platforms) and online research data exchange. In under a decade, Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC) seem to have exceeded 110 million people. The growing digitalisation of credentials and the emergence of interactive courses heralds a new era for the educational sector. Since the beginning of the pandemic, enrolment within the Coursera platform skyrocketed to over 640% higher than it was before and Udemy was up 400%. With the catalyst of the pandemic, such platforms are provided with the opportunity to ´democratise´ higher education, by providing easy access to anyone in the world. Some universities are already testing the idea. And it also seems to make sense for the European universities to do the same thing, maybe in the same manner, as education is an important driver for income, progress and lowering inequalities.
In the meantime, the European Council seems to aim at reducing the research budget. Even if we succeed in correcting this error, there is still a general feeling that change is looming large in the entire operating model of the universities. With the increasing globalisation of academia, researchers are more connected than ever and face the same challenges, like improving reputation, increasing visibility, diversity and impact. Yet, the opportunities for information-sharing seem to fall short, as research efforts are being doubled and redundancies hinder efficient budgeting all across the European Union and even within the same country. A digitally-enhanced European Research Area should allow for a more intelligent and less redundant distribution of research funds.
Until now, universities have been monolithic structures - but if we aim to upgrade the professional education sector and improve our impact through innovation, maybe it’s time to change that. Maybe it’s time to think larger than individual universities and high latency-partnerships, and unite our diversities.
We already have proof, for example, that access to effective education can be scaled up through digital platforms. Moreover, the European University Initiative is preparing the ground for a common transformation agenda for the universities in Europe. Coalescing around the same purpose through digital education, would definitely give universities clarity, but also insights about teaching and learning, derived from the usage data of the students. At the same time, recent initiatives show that online federations of laboratories, located in different states, can enable a cost-effective sharing of hardware and software facilities, focused on real-time research. We could expand upon that idea to increase our impact and output.
For the past decade, many people have been expecting us to innovate the way universities work - and individual universities have been striving to do just that. Yet, what the pandemic might teach us is that we may wish to transform together, at a larger scale than ever before, using information technology to expand what European universities and our network can do.
Rector of University POLITEHNICA of Bucharest
Vice President of CESAER