Edinburgh Global

University of the Future: How will we pave the way forward?

In January, the Principal, members of the student board and staff from across the University joined colleagues from eight Una Europa partner universities to officially kick off a crucial new project – 1Europe – which aims to create a University of the Future.

UNA Europa brings together eight leading research universities with global reputation and reach, the mission being to create a truly European inter-university environment where outstanding research is continuously linked to transnational and innovative, critical thinking. The flagship project, 1Europe, launched in December 2019, with funding secured through the Erasmus+ programme under the European commission.

Staff from the eight prestigious universities, who created many of Europe’s first and most innovative universities, joined with a host of stakeholders in Brussels to celebrate the project’s launch and to debate how the alliance should achieve its aims.

This topic goes to the heart of what Una Europa seeks to do: create a University of the Future, make a European university ecosystem and lead and innovate in collaborative approaches to delivering education.

1Europe will begin to work towards the alliance’s aims via a range of projects and themes, and especially the Future UniLab, which will be a living laboratory to develop and test the new methodologies necessary to operate future universities.

What is a university of the future?

The future cannot be predicted, but there are certain noticeable trends. These include; the increased use of digitalisation, more online learning and mass online courses, and the increased tendency to make degrees more relevant and impactful, for example, tackling sustainable development goals.

Discussion took place on whether universities will continue to exist as physical entities, or perhaps move only online. There were strong arguments on the crucial aspect of face-to-face interaction and the importance of a physical education, however it was also stressed that mindsets of these traditional and often conservative institutions must change, evolve and embrace digitisation to continue to exist.

Bartosz Brozek

Debating in a fishbowl

To place the objectives and approach of 1Europe squarely at the heart of activities, the format was a fishbowl debate which was intended to be innovative and collaborative to match the ethos of the Una Europa alliance. Many attendees had never taken part in ‘fishbowl’ debate before. The discussions took place under spotlight in a staged circle, moderated by Charlotte Geerdrink. The audience encircled the stage to watch the debate. At each new topic pre-selected speakers joined the inner circle and then opened up to audience members to take a spare seat and join in on the debate. This democratic and inclusive model resulted in vibrant discussion, incorporating different ideas and perspectives.

fishbowl conference

A true powerhouse in Europe

Rector of KU Leuven, Luc Sels, set the scene by introducing and framing the dimensions of the new collaboration:

Una Europa is becoming a true powerhouse in Europe, an Alliance of eight comprehensive very strong leading research-intensive universities with global reputation with a strong international reach.

Luc SelsRector of KU Leuven

He went on to explain what the collective strength and strong legacies of the alliance hope to achieve in creating a new future for Europe, for European students and citizens: to build a European university ecosystem and be as innovative as possible, offering joint degrees, truly international curricula and new mobility formats that are scalable, accessible, high quality and cost effective.

The Alliance will create four incubators in Sustainability, European studies, Cultural Heritage and Date Science & Artificial Intelligence that will lead to an international campus offering interdisciplinary, transnational and inclusive education and create a strong external stakeholder involvement, to be connected to the network.

Helping Europe to become future-proof

In her keynote speech, Themis Christophidou, Director-General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture at the European Commission, highlighted the challenges we face in society and commented on how Una Europa will work to solve these: “It is by coming together in teams across disciplines, countries and languages that talented students, researchers and academics will be able to devise solutions to our pressing societal needs. This way, universities will act as a springboard, helping Europe to become future-proof.”

Themis Christophidou

Key discussions and takeaways from the debate

The first session discussed how a consortium of European universities can strengthen The European Research Area (ERA). The ERA aims at creating a unified research area which is open to the world, allowing for free circulation of research, scientific knowledge and technology. Universities are some of the most important organisations within the ERA, making pivotal contributions.

The global position of European Universities

Some of the world’s leading research-intensive universities are predominantly based in the US or Asia, which could be seen as a worrying development, risking the position of Europe as a prominent research player today.

To ensure this does not happen it was discussed the answer is not to mimic the models of those research-intensive universities in the US or Asia. Professor Antonino Rotolo, Vice Rector for Research at The University of Bologna said that instead “we must find the European way of competing through excellence and inclusiveness.” The ERA has given a fantastic boost to the competitiveness of Europe and is a scheme that uses a bottom up approach. It was agreed that bottom up and fundamental research needs to stay because it’s the foundation of everything. It raises the competitiveness of Europe, because without it there is no proper innovation.

Do universities need to transform?

Discussion continued on whether these ancient institutions need to transform. There was general agreeableness that universities must be open to evolution, particularly with a focus on interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research.

Reine Meylaerts, Vice Rector of Research Policy at KU Leuven said, “I think we have to transform in order to keep ourselves existing. We are one of the oldest institutions, and I think the essence of the university has always been to be in deep connection with transformative evolutions and that’s what we have to do now. It’s not an easy history, it’s not an easy story but I think there is only one way forward and that’s to be open to evolution.”

Olga Wessels, Head of Brussels Office of European Consortium of Innovative Universities said, “We need to transform to stay relevant for society…I think it’s not the primary task of universities to deliver degrees to their students. Education is not about degrees. Education is about opening our minds and solving challenges and making the world a better place and I think the university really needs to transform to deliver on those objectives.”

Will universities of the future only exist online?

Brikena Xhomaqi from the Lifelong Learning Platform, talked about concerns surrounding inclusion and accessibility and stated, “The social interaction that physical education has is irreplaceable.”

Andrew Wilson, President of Edinburgh University Students’ Association, continued the conversation, although face-to-face contact is important, it will be crucial to have a strong online presence within the university of the future: “I think it’s important to consider whether the university will exist online through necessity or through choice. For some students it may be a necessity that they have to study online because actually they can’t afford to relocate to a university city, and they can’t afford to accumulate the debt that often comes with living in a university city.”

Bartosz Brozek, Dean of International Affairs, and coordinator of Una Europa activities at the Jagiellonian University, believes it’s more about changing the mindset in terms of digitisation, “I never understand why this is so problematic for universities. We have digitalised almost every aspect of our lives but somehow when it comes to universities there is a kind of barrier, a problem – I don’t know why. But I think that the problem is in a different place, not whether we should use it as a tool or not, we have better and better digital tools and we’ll be forced to use them. Everywhere around the universities digital tools already are and will be used.”

Brikena Xhomaq

What are the skills that students of the future need to have?

Discussions focussed on critical thinking, entrepreneurial skills, growth mindset, academic freedom and freedom of expressions, collaboration and teamwork and reading beyond one narrow discipline.

How can European Universities work with other stakeholders to develop the true European Higher Education area?

The success on the European Universities doesn’t depend on universities themselves but how other stakeholders are involved – such as accreditation offices, student network, cities and enterprises. It was discussed that stakeholders are an absolute necessary requirement – Una Europa is a co-shared responsibility. It can’t be done alone. European Universities is a nice EU concept, but it will need regional and national level actors in order to be successful.

Moving from ambition to action

Day two of the 1EUROPE kick-off event began the first major internal discussions on how we will together move from ambition to action. The day featured plenary sessions and eight parallel workshops with academics and staff involved in ‘Teaching and Learning” and ‘Mobility’ projects, as well as the Self Steering Committees. Made up of academics from UNA Europa’s partner universities in four interdisciplinary focus areas: European Studies, Cultural Heritage, Sustainability and Data Science and AI, the steering committees aim to develop more than 20 international curricula and mobility formats foreseen in the pilot.

Day two also included the first meeting of the Una Europa Student board, an important element for the success of the pilot. Andrew Wilson, President of Edinburgh University Students’ Association, was elected as its President.

Later, Andrew shared what it meant to him to be elected as President of the Una Europa student board on his Students’ Association President Facebook page: “I am so pleased to have been elected the President of the Una Europa Student Board and to have the privilege to, additional to my commitment to represent the students of Edinburgh, represent the interests of over 415,000 students from the Una Europa universities. Edinburgh is the UK’s largest participant in Erasmus+ and the number one destination in Scotland for inbound Erasmus students. In order to reinforce its European spirit in a Brexit world, the University of Edinburgh has joined Una Europa – an alliance of eight leading universities that are seeking to redesign the sector in Europe. I have been in Brussels over the last few days as the alliance launched its 1EUROPE project, creating a truly European inter-university environment."

Stronger together

Despite the challenges presented to everyone by the outbreak of Covid-19, the Una Europa partners continue to support each other and work together and can be found sharing supportive messages under #una_StrongerTogether on Twitter.

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