Una universidad para el futuro

A university for the future

The Internet already allows access to a Harvard course from the most remote town on the planet. And that changes everything. The digital revolution will completely transform a university system that now has problems. The faculties will welcome students of different ages and nationalities while virtual education will gain ground. The competition will be global. And it will be fierce. 2 0

Students of the Faculty of Communication of the URL working in a classroom equipped with computers

Google parents, Larry Page and Serguei Brin, were trained within the walls of the prestigious Stanford University. The founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates, and the creator of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, frequented the legendary campus of Harvard. Paradoxically, the digital revolution that has changed our society so much has had a relative impact on the institutions where it was created. In essence, the teaching system is not far from that practiced by Socrates 2,500 years ago: a teacher who imparts his knowledge or talks with a group of students. But the emergence of MOOCs (mass and free online courses), the proliferation of masters and postgraduate degrees, the growing mobility of students, the pressure of emerging countries, financing in a context of crisis and globalization are altering the schemes . There is no going back. The academic dinosaur is in full mutation.

What will the university of the future be like? Will the virtual model be imposed in front of face-to-face classes? Will it be democratized or will it be increasingly elitist and superspecialized? Is the public system economically sustainable? What will be the influence of the market? Will the traditional relationship between teaching and research be maintained? How will demographic changes affect? In the academic universe there is confluence in the need to rethink higher education, but the answers to these questions are still far from generating consensus.

The phenomenon that has precipitated the debate sounds like an ancient horn, but it also refers to the sound of an alarm, the signal that alerts of the arrival of a seismic movement in all the campuses. MOOCs have spread across the network like a honeysuckle. They exist on almost everything; from techniques for public speaking to quantum physics, from HTML5 programming to the study of the great enigmas of the universe.

“Thousands of people attend one or two MOOCs per year, many of them offered by leading university centers in the world, so it would be wrong to despise them. They do not replace a graduation, but neither do they claim it. Instead, they are a practical way for universities to offer opportunities for global learning throughout life, “says Dr. Hellen Carasso, a specialist in higher education at the University of Oxford, where the elites of the United Kingdom are formed. part of the foreigner.

MOOCs, which allow you to obtain a prestigious stamp from home, although without qualification, seduce millions of people

The temptation to obtain a degree that carries the prestigious seal of Oxford, Yale or Harvard from the home computer and in a few weeks or months has seduced millions of people. It is estimated that half of those who manage to finish the first week finish the course, but that does not seem to devalue the invention. There they are Coursera, platform that agglutinates the offer of courses on line of 800 universities of all the world, with more than seven million users; edX, promoted by Google, with 2.7 million users; Alison, with three million, or Udacity, with 1.6 million. Some astronomical figures to be an offer that took off in 2012.

In Spain the phenomenon has ignited with an enthusiasm worthy of a miraculous anti-crisis potion. It came hand in hand with the Polytechnic University of Madrid and already has platforms such as MiríadaX, which gathers courses from around thirty institutions and 800,000 users, or UniMooc, with 40,000, aimed at entrepreneurs. The European Commission figures in 253 MOOC programs in Spain, as many as in the United Kingdom and Germany combined. France, more skeptical, offers 88.

“It’s an interesting but passing phenomenon. The majority of MOOCs consist of digitizing the contents and putting them online, but the level of accompaniment is low. They have a great external impact, but as an educational model they are not an alternative, “says Carles Sigalés, vice chancellor of teaching and learning at the Open University of Catalonia (UOC), a pioneer of online teaching in Spain.

In his blog, the rector of the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, José Carrillo Menéndez, defends the so-called open access movement, considering that citizens “finance research with their taxes”, so “it is not legitimate” that they have to pay to know the results.

The MOOC and other online courses come as a glove to the so-called millennial generation, which needs to swell its curriculum to be in a position to compete in the squalid labor market. But there are other factors that explain the formidable demand. “The great change is that people are formed throughout their lives,” says Sigalés, to which adds a new market: “The training deficit of emerging countries – known as the Brics – also among adults” . In fact, the expansion of the UOC, he says, is partly due to the interest it raises in many Spanish-speaking countries.

In the absence of work, young people – and their families – invest in education, which has favored the emergence of masters and postgraduates. The centers have found in this offer the vein to try to compensate for a clamorous lack of resources, the other great workhorse in which two systems are opposed: the private and the public, the Anglo-Saxon and that of countries such as Spain, France or Italy.

In the United States, you have to be a good family or have to go into debt to study at a leading university. The president himself, Barack Obama, a law student at Harvard, has just returned his loan just eight years ago. They also get into debt – although under special conditions that only force them to repay the loan when they access a moderately paid job – the students of the United Kingdom, where, despite being public, the university has a high cost. Three years ago, to face the crisis, the Government of David Cameron took the unpopular decision to triple the rates. While in Spain a tuition costs 1,105 euros, on the other side of the Channel it reaches 11,200. And the price shoots up even more for citizens who do not belong to the European Union.

Dr. Carasso has participated in a study entitled Higher rates, higher expectations? which concludes that the increase in enrollment has not only discouraged the applicants but has made them “more responsible and selective”. “They take more into account the employment factor,” says the study, which notes another positive effect: the reduction of dropout levels. In Spain, with 1.4 million university students, the percentage of first-year drop-outs reaches 19% and among the scholarship students, presumably the most motivated, stands at 13.5%, according to official data.

“There will be a role for public universities in the future, but, in most countries, their income will not come from the government. There will be changes in the way of sharing costs between students and the State in enrollment rates. At the same time, new models of private universities and course providers will come into play, often focused on competing to attract students with degrees that can offer, at a lower cost, good job prospects, “Carasso warns.

Is low cost university coming? This idea appears in the study of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Higher Education on the 2030 horizon . Of the four scenarios that it draws, three pose a “more marked hierarchy among establishments”. That is, the difference between the elite centers will increase, which “will attract more funding, offer better working conditions and prestige and establish alliances with universities of the same rank”, and the rest. The research will be reserved for the first centers, while the second ones should be content with the transmission of knowledge. The study also considers a “liberalization of fees” and a “fierce” competition among “superstars” universities, which will open branches abroad under “franchises” and outsource part of their research to countries such as India or Thailand.

“New models of private universities and course providers will come into play, often focused on competing to attract students with degrees that can offer, at a lower cost, good job prospects,” predicts Hellen Carasso, of the University from Oxford

It is not clear how Ryanair will adopt higher education – prefabricated buildings where it will be paid even to take a virtual seat or campus? – but the UOC is on guard. “Online education does not mean low cost,” says Sigalés. In any case, even in the presence centers, the classrooms will cease to be the main scenario for the transmission of knowledge. The magisterial lessons in an amphitheater before fifty students will go down in history.

“The information that can be acquired through digital channels will reach students through this channel,” says Andreu Ibarz, general director of Blanquerna-Universitat Ramon Llull (URL), the largest private center in Spain. In his opinion, face-to-face classes only make sense in “small groups with practical contents”. And if you can use cutting edge technology, like the giant interactive tablet that has launched this course the Health Sciences faculty of the URL to teach anatomy, the better. The professor stops practicing as an oracle to become a guide, a function he often exercises through the internet.

“One of the biggest challenges is the mobility of teachers and students. It means that universities compete with others around the world to attract the best. It is also an opportunity, opportunities to collaborate in research with international partners are opened “, analyzes Carasso. Competition, internationalization and research are at the heart of a debate in which two models collide again: the Anglo-Saxon, which works with criteria of social and economic profitability by promoting private investment, and that of Latin countries, where the massive access to a university “historically allergic to the business world”, in the words of Dr. Ibarz.

The contempt for what the French pejoratively call “the Coca-Cola University” -in reference to the ability to influence the large corporations that finance university projects- allows maintaining academic purity, but is not very useful when it comes to paying for increasingly expensive research in times of lean times. “While Spain has opted to compensate for the cuts by increasing the number of students and proposing more graduate and master courses, the United States has opted to double investment in research to produce more patents that generate benefits later,” exemplifies Xavier Caseras, PhD in Psychology at the University of Cardiff, one of the leading establishments in Great Britain in clinical psychology and biomedicine.

“One of the problems of the public university in Spain is that it wants to reach everything. What quality can you offer when you have 87,000 students, like the Complutense? “, Says Ibarz, whose establishment -the URL- encompasses a constellation of centers, including the Esade business school, and which is committed to” excellence “and “Specialization” to be able to compete with European universities. The same philosophy follows the Universitat Pompeu Fabra (this, public), whose studies in economics and biomedicine enjoy worldwide prestige.

The thesis of excess supply is contradicted with numbers by the rector of the Complutense: “In the United States there are 309 million inhabitants and 3,277 universities, that is, one university for every 94,000 inhabitants; in the United Kingdom there are 61 million inhabitants and 241 universities, one for every 253,000 inhabitants. In Spain we are 47 million and we have 79 universities, that is, one for every 582,000 inhabitants. Where is the oversize? “

“The future of higher education involves carrying out useful research, which will allow society to return the investment it has made. In Spain, this culture is still pending, “says Jordi Llabrés, vice-rector for innovation and transfer at the University of the Balearic Islands (UIB).

Jordi Llabrés, vice-chancellor of the University of the Balearic Islands (UIB), the first in Spain to have a vice-rector for innovation, defends a hybrid model. “The future is to conduct a useful investigation, to return to society the investment it has made. In Spain, this culture is pending, “says Llabrés, who leads a cooperation program with companies.

His vision is related to Carasso’s thesis: “The university will increasingly be the home of blue skies (an expression that defines basic research, which has no apparent practical objective) and will have the potential to commercialize its findings, through patents and the creation of spin-outs (companies that allow universities to market the results of their research). Institutions should go out and seek income in philanthropic funds, in line with the North American model. “

For Caseras, “the university of the future can not be a school for big children, but a place where knowledge is made and transmitted”. In his opinion, the Anglo-Saxon approach is more “rational”. “In Great Britain, the Government evaluates research centers according to what they contribute to society and renews funding based on results,” explains the doctor in Psychology, who left the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona to devote himself to the investigation. In his apartment in Cardiff there are half a dozen Spaniards. “Investing in training some students so that later those who excel to go abroad is a fiasco,” he laments.

In the field of internationalization, the Anglo-Saxon university has the best weapon: English, the frank language of the global world. In Spain more and more courses are conducted in the language of Shakespeare, but there is still a way to go.

The obsession to appear at the top of the rankings is also in full review. “Each university has its own mission and priorities. The winners make a note on the basis of a quality model, ignoring other legitimate definitions of quality “, questions Carasso. “Harvard holds the record for Nobel prizes, but in the future other parameters will be taken into account, such as the number of students who find work”, corroborates Ibarz.

Everything indicates that the universities that will survive the restructuring process will welcome students of different ages and nationalities living in an increasingly virtual space. Specialization and connection with social demand will be key to continue in the race. The mutation can be spectacular, but some values ​​will remain valid. Nelson Mandela said: “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.”

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