Future of higher education

Are we ready for the future of education? How are we impacted in our accelerating knowledge society? Are we still motivated by gaining knowledge?

Due to preparations for an event in Zürich, I had a discussion about our educational system, especially the higher education.

It was a very heated debate about Universities, Colleges, Institutes, the role of the academic staff, the students, finances, politics etc. and what we miss in research and education, how science became depending on economy, if it’s „free“ and what solutions are possible.

Around the world, Universities have different models if tried to be compared. The German system follows a very different model than the anglo-saxonian one. In many aspects. In Germany we don’t have campuses full with amenities and sport teams are irrelevant (sorry for this sidekick).

Also, most Universities in Germany are publicly funded. The funding policy is very challenging and leads into internal funding fights. Oh, and if you don’t spend the money in time, you lose it and the budget for the following year will be reduced. This leads into “last orders” that are just number driven and not quality driven. Simply said: burning money.

Qualified research in Germany is now mostly driven by clusters of research institutions (the Max Planck institutes, the Fraunhofer institutes, DESY, DLR, DKFZ and many others), that work dedicated to specific areas.

Private institutions like Harvard, Yale, Stanford etc are handier players cause they have to acquire enough money by their own. Herefore their PR and coop is more effective and their visibility is more effective.

Let’s think back when we made our degrees (high-school diploma / A level / Abitur) on Highschool, what were the interests of the school students. It was a race for good grades to study medicine, law or business management.

I started to think about my own expectations. Thinking about my childhood in Prague. The famous Charles University. My time in England, how impressed I was by Oxford and Cambridge, then growing up in Marburg. Their slogan was „most cities have an University, we ARE a University“.

1994 till 1996 I’ve been member of the board at the faculty for geosciences and from 1996 till 1998 member of the committee on budgets at the Philipps University in Marburg, the institutions were already in a transformation about specializations. Becoming research hubs who listen on the needs of corporations instead of focusing on gaining knowledge. The times where Universities were conceived as education and research facilities seem to be over.

This was the first time I was confronted with the expectations on higher education: for (most) of the students it was a simple game; only with a diploma or PhD you will get a good paid job.

What is the main mission of Universities? Very simple. It is NOT to enable us to make lots of money.

This material slavery was visible in how wealthy some departments were. For example the sedimentology cause they were able to get assignments by the Oil industry. Palaeontology not. No one really needs a geologist.

Or look at biology: if you want to be „successful“ in work life, you need to study microbiology, human genetics or some of the fancy new disciplines wanted by the industry. As zoologist or botanist… pah, no way. You will end up as a pharmaceutical representative. If you are lucky.

For my own department (geoscience) it ended badly. In 2006 it was shut down.

Universities should teach us to develop a critical mind, to think, having an opinion. To question facts and to review results.

But the race on money and prestige brought us into a messed up system.

We should differentiate between pure theoretical scientific disciplines for basic research. This is fundamental and should be fully supported by the governments to stay independent. Here should Universities come into the game.

We have a lot of disciplines that do not belong to this, like business management. These are just better accountants. NO science. They should go to trade schools like a tax accountant. Law is NO science. Only if seen in a historical context. Medicine teaches how to repair the human machine. NO science.

Then we have applied sciences that are needed to prove the theories, but they are more practically oriented and need another lab or research equipement. Here we are in the area of polytechnic and colleges.

Finally the “product development” that should be in scope of institutes and laboratories, backed by companies and consortia.

During the World Web Forum 2019, we will discuss these streams and progressive ideas like the learning economy. I will be part of the Global Talent Summit and am looking forward to share ideas and insights with the audience.