Universities are at the apex of our education systems. Millions of youngsters spend three or four years at these institutions before embarking on their careers. They are often hailed as pinnacles of academic excellence. But is the model outdated? Do young people leave universities ready for life in today’s rapidly changing world? Can universities play a longer-term, more active role in our careers?

Technology has transformed all our lives. We can work remotely and take up occupations that did not exist just a decade ago. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated these processes. Universities face a huge challenge to keep pace. Should they focus more sharply on the job market? Can they work more closely with big firms and industries?

What do our readers think? We had a comment from Junchen, who argues we need to promote a lifelong learning approach, with people constantly upskilling throughout their careers to keep up with new technology. Is he right? And what role could universities play in a lifelong learning approach?

To get a response, we took Junchen’s question to education innovator Anne Kjær Bathel, Founder and Managing Director of ReDI School of Digital Integration, which provides free coding and computer courses for youngsters in Germany and Denmark who would otherwise struggle for access. What would she say to Junchen?

I absolutely agree that lifelong learning is something that needs to be on everyone’s radar… You constantly need to be able to upskill yourself. If you want to stay competitive in your job and doing a good job, indeed, you need to keep on learning. I think one of the most important things and roles for universities is really teaching people how to learn — learning to learn. So understanding what are the different modalities in which you personally learn the best, so that this is something that can help guide you in the future. And I think, of course, universities have a very important role in nurturing critical thinking and understanding — where are my sources coming from? How can I use multiple sources? Also how can I play a part in adding to this body of knowledge so that everyone can benefit from the research that we’re doing?

For another perspective, we also put Junchen’s comment to academic Prof. Dr. Georg Krücken, Director of the International Center for Higher Education Research Kassel (INCHER-Kassel), an institution that specialises in the study of universities. What was his take?

I think in principle you are right, though I wouldn’t talk about lifelong learning, but I would rather use a more traditional term ‘further education’. Lifelong learning, for me, is also a kind of ideological construct promoted by the European Union, UNESCO or OECD and other international organisations… This might make a difference because, if you take further education, you have more a bottom-up approach, because if you want to do further education, if you want to do it right, then you have to take into consideration what the involved actors and organisations want, what firms want, what the employees want, what the universities want, what the university professors who might offer courses on lifelong learning, what they want. This perhaps is my general approach.

We should rather see what is going on at the bottom, what is in the interest of involved actors and organisations and not perhaps what is in the interest of supranational organisations. And, in Germany, for example, we have nowadays three percent of our university students who are enrolled in a kind of dual career programme. Dual career means they have a dual track: on the one hand they have an apprenticeship in a firm and on the other hand they have university studies. And here, for example, you can see that firms and universities are cooperating in a positive way, that young people are involved, and this could be a good basis for further education. And I would advocate to see more of these kinds of interactions involving, obviously, universities and university professors.

Next up, HJo sent us a comment arguing that lifelong learning is good for employers because their staff will learn for free on the Internet in their own time. But is this fair? How can people take a lifelong learning approach when they have to juggle a full-time job, family, and other commitments at the same time?

How would Anne Kjær Bathel respond?

I see it a little bit differently. Lifelong learning is not just something that you do for businesses. It’s more of a mindset that we bring to work and think: How can I do my work better? How can I stay relevant? And this is something that can happen on the job. If it’s something that is related to the job, of course, employers should also enable that through internal or external knowledge and further education. But it’s also something that can happen outside. What we need to focus on is really having this mindset of always being a learner and all always being an active learner in a community, sometimes you are giving, sometimes you’re taking. From my experience at ReDI school, what I’ve learnt is that the best way to learn is to teach. So when you need to take a skill like coding and teach that to somebody else, this is actually the way that you will get to become a better programmer yourself. So yes indeed, further education is good for the businesses. But on the other hand, I think we also as active citizens need to take learning as a serious part of what it means to be an active community member, and also for ourselves to improve our careers and our quality of life.

What would Georg Krücken say to HJo’s comment?

Let’s take a look at the existing practices. In Germany, for example, there is a chance for people who work in firms, for example, to take some days off for further education. I think it should be used, but it should be used in a more, let’s say, standardised way, and not with the expectation that people who work in firms have to update themselves 24 hours, seven days a week. And I think this is also not in the interest of the employer of the firm because we have solid research now, in organisational studies and industrial sociology, showing that firms also need some stability from their members. That kind of hyperactive individual might perhaps be a utopia or perhaps a dystopia. But the hyperactive individual is certainly not what a firm or another employer – it could also be a public administration or an NGO — what they want. We have in Germany now, rather a rather large burnout rate. And so I think it is in the interest of all to have, on the one hand, further education, but on the other hand, also to have some kind of stability and continuity in work relations.”

Finally, we had a comment from Magda, who argues: “We need much more flexibility in Higher Education in Europe, including transferal of credits between institutions and across borders, an EU framework for micro-credentials, and a greater diversity of certified accrediting organisations.” Is she right?

What did Anne Kjær Bathel think?

I absolutely agree with you that we need flexibility in the education system. My background comes from innovation and we talk about T-shaped people, you can have a generalist knowledge about many things, and then you go deep in one thing. That middle point where the deep knowledge and the generalist knowledge meet each other, this is where we have a great chance for innovative and new ideas. And I think the more that we can both have this generous generalist knowledge that is developed over time, either through online tutorials micro certification, or even just experienced base knowledge sharing with your friends and your peers, this is also where we can develop a new understanding. And when you can combine that with something that is a solid university education or vocational training, this has tremendous potential for them coming up with breakthrough new ideas. I absolutely agree we need to encourage people to continue learning. Even if it’s just a one-day new workshop that they go to, or if it’s a consistent course over time. The more accessible education, the better.

How would Georg Krücken respond?

I’m very much in favour of more flexibility in Europe, among European universities and different study programmes. But on the other hand, I doubt whether we can reach that with micro-credit points and with more accurate accreditation organisations. And I think my more sceptical point of view is based on a rather large study we conducted here at the ICHER-Kassel on the accreditation system in Germany. We came to the conclusion that whatever kind of accreditation you have… it kind of inevitably leads to an increasing bureaucratisation because this might be perhaps in the logic of such formal instruments. If you have more accreditation agencies, I don’t see this as a solution to the problem. And also the EU framework is a bureaucratic instrument, and it could turn out to be a bureaucratic monster, to say it a little bit in an exaggerated way. If I want to give a positive answer how to achieve more flexibility, I would say that we should try to get more researchers at universities, teachers at universities involved in these processes and those who have had their own experiences while studying abroad…

Interested in how ‘anywhere, anytime’ education systems can support the green digital transition? Read Friends of Europe’s report, “Connected Europe: A digital brand for a just transition”, which presents the results of a year-long pan-European study supported by Vodafone. The report explores how policymakers and industry can work better together to boost Europe’s connectivity and foster a transformation that is both sustainable and fair, and one that builds resilient communities, societies and economies. All while ensuring that citizens are at the heart of the debate.

Are universities fit for the 21st century? Should they promote a lifelong learning approach, with people constantly upskilling throughout their careers to keep up with new technology? How can people take a lifelong learning approach when they have to juggle a full-time job, family, and other commitments at the same time? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!

IMAGE CREDITS: Photo by Vadim Sherbakov on Unsplash; PORTRAIT CREDITS: Anne Kjær Bathel – CC BY 3.0 Stifterverband; Georg Krücken – CC BY-SA 4.0 INCHER-Kassel

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9 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar
    Joe Zammit-Lucia

    Most universities are stuck in the 18th century. Still focused on didactic academic teaching instead of helping people acquire the useful skills they need. Most are increasingly disinterested in their students as more incentives are driven by research and publications rather than teaching. None of this will change unless we revolutionize university funding models and incentive systems. Universities have become worse than just a waste of public money. That are actually harmful as currently structured.

  2. avatar

    1. ,,Fit” is not a word that can be used for educational institutions. It can’t be used for living creatures either. At least not in my native language.
    2. Digital Revolution can’t replace the temples of knowledge. Technologies can only help education but it can’t replace it. Education is a social process that has to form and not just to inform students personalities.

  3. avatar
    catherine benning

    Are universities fit for the 21st century? Which universities? European?

    Universities filled with woke ignoramuses are fit for nothing?… No debates allowed, strange askew ideas filtered via odd looking ‘Ausländer’ groups who don’t know if they are coming or going. Without any proper ability to annunciate correctly in any of their chosen languages.. Most picked up for a count on where they originate from rather than if they have an astute, enquiring intellect…. You need to take a good look at the education in Singapore if you want to do a comparison example..

  4. avatar

    Psychotic nerds are destroying society.

  5. avatar

    Could not care less. Have electricity and gas bills to pay….

  6. avatar

    Yes, they are. Especially for people who use the word ,,fit” to describe educational institutions.

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