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Co-Creating Value: The Present and Future of Higher Education

by Carolin Plewa, Victoria Galán-Muros & Balzhan Orazbayeva

The value of higher education

Students are questioning if attending university will pay off. Increasing personal cost and the large youth unemployment rates in some countries make them wonder whether universities will provide them with the knowledge and skills to succeed in the labour market. University is not necessarily a vehicle for social mobility for graduates, so they are turning to other types of education (MOOCs, industry certifications, etc.) that report them similar benefits in less time and with less cost.

At the same time, many businesses are questioning if universities can be appropriate partners to access talent and new developments. Wondering whether universities can provide students with the skills that will make them better employees, businesses are considering other type of skills certification in their hiring processes. It is also in doubt for some whether universities are prepared to upskill current employees through continuing education and whether they can deliver innovations that can be easily absorbed and applied by business to gain competitive advantage.

Some governments are also questioning if it is worth spending more on higher education based on its current impact on economic and social development. The budget competition with lower levels of education and other areas outside education is strong. Hence, governments would consider higher education a good investment only if there is a high return in terms of jobs created, taxes paid and research impact achieved.

Similarly, communities are questioning if universities can help them solve the most pressing societal challenges. Many wonder whether universities are creating socially responsible graduates whose knowledge will drive regional innovation and economic growth and whether universities can develop open research outputs that are available to society and facilitate societal benefits.

The question remains how the value stakeholders seek from the higher education sector can be created and what the role of the university and its stakeholders are in the process. While some universities already position themselves as partners within their ecosystem to facilitate value creation, much of their engagement is limited to transactional approaches and mechanisms, focused on one or few activities or on a narrow group of stakeholders.

Remaining relevant in 2040 and beyond

Just as a holistic understanding of the modern evolutionary theory suggests, life evolves by a process of diversification through collaboration¹. Universities thus need to shift their focus from the individual organisations to the collective of life, since the collaborative and symbiotic interactions prove themselves to be of even higher importance than competition. Universities will be transforming and adapting themselves through the decentralisation of the knowledge generation and transmission away from the ivory tower into communities and society at large.

Universities will be increasingly leading collective efforts to solve longstanding and evolving social challenges through needs-driven interdisciplinary research by translating science into effective solutions to address societal challenges. They will better attune themselves towards a more sustainable future.

Furthermore, notwithstanding the growing importance and adoption of problem-based learning as well as entrepreneurship education, never more than today has the need for more relevant society and community-oriented transformative pedagogies been so imperative. And this challenge will also remain important in the future.

Forward looking universities acting along the interplay of the university missions will embrace the need for change and take on responsibility to contribute to the society in a more meaningful way driving regional innovation and economic growth.

But how will this happen? What will be different in 2040?

By 2040, higher education will be a central part of a collaborative ecosystem that drives positive change and comprises not just universities, business and government, but also social enterprises, community groups and support organisations, schools, as well as society at large. To maximise success, the interface will evolve into a truly integrated co-creation platform through which all stakeholders will connect to learn, innovate and contribute to the society in a positive way. It is through the joining and integration of the unique resources everyone brings to the table that value will be co-created and that value will be realised for each individual, group and organisation.

Co-creation through place

Higher education will move away from isolated campuses to integrated working and learning models. It is here that businesses, government departments, community organisations, social support structures, schools and the wider society interact and work together, developing and strengthening personal networks. Such physical place will be augmented by digital platforms connecting within and across systems.

Co-creation through innovation

Innovation will be an integral part of the co-creation ecosystem, as the interface of knowledge, skills and vision will ensure a wide range of research, development and extension efforts ranging from blue-sky research to applied solving of specific problems. A strong innovation agenda means that individuals with strengths critical to any one aspect of innovation are valued and supported, independent of their formal role.

Co-creation through learning

While higher education will remain the focal point of formal learning, its role will be as a facilitator, enabler and connector. This role is critical as learners co-create their own learning experiences and their own future; together with the university, businesses and communities. In addition to the strong drive for embedding entrepreneurship learning into curricula right now, 2040 will see a stronger socially driven entrepreneurship agenda. By means of active community involvement, learners will own their role in generating a better ‘tomorrow’.

In the end, only collectively can we jointly co-create a greater ‘tomorrow’ and only engagement of all relevant stakeholders can make that happen.

It will be the co-created future that will be of greatest value to students, businesses, governments and communities and that will ensure value is experienced by everyone in the ecosystem. Only together can we navigate the ‘today’ and co-design a brighter ‘tomorrow’.

This is an excerpt from ‘The Future of Universities Thoughtbook’

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