Colleen Silva-Hayden on the challenges of higher education in an interview for the Observatory

We need a more interdisciplinary education that allows students to graduate with competencies and cross-cutting skills.
— Colleen Silva-Hayden.

Colleen Silva-Hayden, Assistant Director of University Innovation at Harvard University, LASPAU, spoke about higher education challenges in Latin America in an interview for the Observatory.

Observatory: What are the main challenges that universities face in keeping pace with innovation?

Silva-Hayden: Well, when we look at the context of higher education in the Latin American and Caribbean region, we are thinking of 10,000 institutions, which serve more than 20 million students; and half of those students, the percentage of students who enter the university in the last 10 to 15 years has doubled. With these new students, many of them are not the traditional students that come from the richest and most privileged families that their parents already studied in the university. We have many students who are first generation, many students who are not in the typical age of the university students; there are many who are over 21 when they enter the university. And not only in the case of Latin America, even in the United States and other regions of the world. We have many first-generation students, and I believe that one of the great challenges or challenges for higher education institutions is how they can first absorb these students, but guarantee the quality of education. And it is not simply that students graduate, although only 50% of students in this region graduate with a degree before they reach 26 to 29 years, according to a report made by the World Bank group. We have to improve the quality, also the relevance of education. I believe that many of the students in most of the institutions, the universities of Latin America, when they enter the university have to choose their major, and this will have a tremendous impact on the course of their entire lives. They have to decide: "I'm going to be an engineer, a lawyer," and that's the way it is. In contrast, what we see is that all innovative education has another tendency. What we want to say in what is more innovative is that it adapts and responds more to the needs and trends of today and the future. We need more interdisciplinary education, education that allows students to graduate with competences and cross-cutting skills, which will serve them in diverse majors that they will have during their lives, which will serve them in majors that will change little in time, if not they are already changing today. Another challenge I think has to do with social inclusion, the diversity of institutions. This year at Harvard the class entered, the academic profile of the students at the Harvard College level, the most diverse profile we have had. Diverse in terms of socioeconomic levels, levels of ethnic diversity of students, and diversity not only has to do with numbers, it is also the controls, the processes, the environment, the academic community, which can provide the best for those students.

Also, everywhere in the region, we see that universities are a mechanism for social inclusion, for social mobility, economic improvement of students; but we see that there are also many segments of the populations that are not yet included in higher education. There are many populations that do not have an active voice, an active role in the research environment and do not enter into leadership careers, to advance the most important areas of society. This diversity is so important because it allows us, first, to have very different perspectives, which reflect our societies. Also, I believe that from the perspectives of these students and also the institutional diversity at the level of the faculty, the academic leaders, there is much to do to have more representation of women, of diversity in all aspects. Thus, our institutions will have more information and more perspective, and they will also value much more what they can do to have an impact on civil society if we have more inclusion for people coming from different spheres of the community.

Observatory: What is the teacher's role in the future of education?

Silva-Hayden: I believe that the role of the teacher in the future of education has a more active and less centralized role. In the original universities centuries ago, this is where this tradition of reading began, that teachers sometimes had the only copies, very precious, of the texts that had to be copied by hand, and they carried this text to read. And see that this practice has not changed in many universities for centuries. But nowadays it is changing a lot, and it has been changing in many universities and also in secondary education, primary school, in many cases. We see that students are not simply in the classroom to receive knowledge, data, and information. They need to have a more central role; student-centered learning, this will greatly change the role of the teacher. And there are many teachers who are afraid of this change because they think they have lost a little of their importance, their influence; but it is totally the other way around. This new model allows teachers to guide you as a mentor, training students in areas or higher levels of Bloom's taxonomy, so that students are the ones who generate the ideas, apply their ideas, create new possibilities; and they can design and produce in this generation in which all students want to upload their ideas, their photos, their selfies through YouTube or Facebook. It can be the same in the classroom, that the students want to show their ideas; and then the teachers can guide them more, they can show them, they can give them more specific feedback to improve their knowledge, their understanding and train them in a more holistic way, and get to an even more interesting level for the academics and get into more open questions, deeper, in which we will not find the answers only in the back of a book, a text, but also enter the questions that students will have throughout their careers.

Observatory: Do you think that alternative credentials will ever be recognized by the labor market along with traditional university degrees?

Silva-Hayden: I believe that, on the one hand, there are many students who are saying: "Look, I need to improve my skills in this specific area," and look for an online course, something on YouTube, in Coursera; and this is going well. But on the other hand, the students, I believe that the credentials for the teachers, one of their great roles and the great advantages of the professors is that they do research, that they are very active in producing new knowledge, and this is an experience in which the students still and the institutions need teachers of a high quality in those areas, to also produce new knowledge and as institutions that are producing more research. I believe that this is not changing so much, but what we see is greater collaboration between the private sector, industry and universities; and in this he focuses a lot on applied research. That is a good space for the students, to advance in applied projects, which can be learned from the educators who come from the industry, who do not have a Ph.D. and have a great use. But I believe that in the end, universities need their professors who are also researchers; and we must be careful not to have such a strong division among the academic professors, who will see things a bit more in-depth or enter the theory as well; but to have a combination of the best practices of the industry, how we learn in the professional field, together with the theory, the research and the fundamentals of the Humanities and the Liberal Arts.

Observatory: In your opinion, what does higher education look like in 2049?

Silva-Hayden: Well, in the year 2049 I have no idea what higher education will be like, or anything else. I always believe that there is a great risk to try to make projections of the far distant future. But I think so, there are going to be a lot more students than we see today who are entering higher education, we see people of very different ages and we see that one of the trends is that nowadays we as citizens or workers professionals, we do not think of the university exclusively as a unique experience of four years of undergraduate, we see a continuity of education in which we have to go back to the university, sometimes to do a master's degree, a doctorate; but also executive education, professional education. And, well, the role of the university, I think it is expanding. On the other hand, I believe that, and hopefully, the universities, each one will specialize in its context, in the most local needs or, if it is a very international university, it would have another mission; but that the institutions of the future will try to simply raise the international ranks, they will say: "Okay, the international ranges serve me as a tool, it is a perspective, they are indicators that I can use to think about how we do," but that they will focus on their own indicators of success. They will define it according to their students, they will have more specific missions, and so the students already have a great international offer of what they can study and where. And well, universities are going to have to do more to get attention and say: "This is our identity, that's our unique offer," and have more correspondence between what students really want and have the best educational offer and of research in those key areas.