"No matter what they say... The University has a promising future." That was the message that Ricardo Rivero Ortega, Salamanca University Rector —an institution that this year celebrates eight hundred years of its foundation— gave during his speech at the IV International Rectors' Meeting Universia 2018 that took place on May 21st and 22nd.
The Meeting, unique in the world, brought together more than 700 rectors, deans and academic leaders from more than 600 universities who took a necessary break to reflect on the main challenges facing 21st-century universities.
For two days, the rectors participated in thirteen debates where strategic topics for the future of higher education were discussed. With the slogan "University, Society, and Future", the Meeting was developed around three strategic topics: training and learning in the digital world, research at the university and universities' contribution to social and territorial development.
David Garza, Tecnológico de Monterrey Rector, coordinated the first round of debates where it was analyzed how digital technologies are changing the way we learn and teach, highlighting the opportunities that these new technologies offer to higher education. In this topic, Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, identified three trends that universities must take into account to not become obsolete: modular education, hybrid education (online and face-to-face) and lifelong learning.
The globalized world requires the internationalization of universities, however, the attendees stressed that it must go beyond learning a new language and focus instead on life experiences. "Internationalization is not about exchanging students between universities in different countries, but about immersing oneself in each one of those stories, cultures, values, economies, and societies," said Samuel Martín-Barbero, rector of the Camilo José Cela University.
Another of the strategic debate topics of the Meeting was the relevance of research at universities. A theme that resonated in all the discussion tables. "Research has been and should continue to be one of the missions of the university," said Carlos Andradas, rector of the Complutense University of Madrid. "The university is the key to the economy of the future," said Pedro Miguel Echenique, Professor of Condensed Matter Physics at the University of the Basque Country. It is through knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, that societies can develop, said the professor.
However, higher education institutions must go beyond the generation of knowledge, colleges and universities must be levers of the transformation of societies. "The relationship of the university with companies and society is of the utmost importance to develop a more competitive economy and achieve a more just society," said Segundo Píriz, University of Extremadura Rector.
Meanwhile, Echenique and Píriz agreed that although alliances with companies are crucial, universities should not be employee factories. "If we are only training for employment, then we are losing the capacity for analysis and criticism of our students," said Píriz. For his part, Echenique stressed that universities should never become "a cheap factory for companies", because in his opinion "a university whose mission is employability, while profitable, is not focused on the essence of the university."
Training citizens, more than mere employees, is the challenge facing higher education institutions. "The social and humanistic part of knowledge is being lost in the university and it will be fundamental in the future to have strong leaders," said Pam Fredman, president of the International Association of Universities.
While digital technologies have caused the disruption of the traditional educational model, the rectors and deans recognized the necessary renaissance of the humanities and the role they will play in the 4.0 economy, where automation will make social-emotional skills more relevant than ever. The National Autonomous University of Mexico Rector, Enrique Graus, stressed the importance of developing emotional intelligence in students, regardless of their discipline, because technology without humanism has no meaning.
Today, an education for uncertainty becomes necessary. In the opinion of Juan Carlos Henao Pérez, rector of the Externado de Colombia University, "we must educate for uncertainty more than for security, to train free citizens".
The next Rectors' Meeting, organized by Universia, the educational platform of Banco Santander, will be held in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and will seek to create an Ibero-American knowledge hub.