This column also appears in Times Higher Education.
New ideas and technologies are disrupting the way the world as we know it operates.
Technological innovations that power strides in artificial intelligence, advanced manufacturing and autonomous vehicles are affecting the economies, lifestyles and demographics of the future. If we are to meet the challenges and opportunities these technologies present, we’re going to have to change with them.
Key to making this transition will be the world’s 22,000 universities, which are charged with exploring knowledge and with preparing the millions of students who study at their campuses for the road that lies ahead.
To meet these emerging challenges, the role of the university and how it operates will need to necessarily evolve. In addition to breaking down traditional silos within institutions themselves, universities will have to break down the barriers that exist between them and the world outside their campuses.
We’ll need to encourage the various disciplines to work together and ensure that groundbreaking discoveries make their way beyond the lab and the academic journal.
Our students will need to be more than just book-smart. They’ll need to be world-smart, and intimately familiar with the needs and challenges of the workplaces they hope to create or join.
This does not mean abandoning the traditions, fundamental values and principles that have made universities great: it just means growing them and making them more accessible. It means ensuring that we are adopting and expanding on ideas that have allowed academia to build a bridge between the practices of the past and the necessities of the future.
In the context of my own university, the University of Waterloo has had many opportunities to learn what works and what doesn’t when it comes to preparing our students for the next stages of their lives and ensuring that the contributions of our researchers are felt well beyond our campus. Ensuring that our students are exposed to the opportunities and challenges of the workplace was a founding principle of our institution and is embodied in what has become the largest cooperative education programme in the world. It’s a programme that sees our students work directly with industry during “work terms”.
We have also found that supporting and encouraging research at its most fundamental level and, at the same time, connecting it with a real-world application has been fundamental in building research relationships with companies across the world. These relationships, combined with a policy that allows researchers and students to keep the intellectual property they develop on our campus, have made partnerships with Waterloo increasingly sought after by emerging and established companies alike.
I believe it is this interface between the private and public sectors and academia that will need to be a major focus of all universities’ efforts if they are to contribute to the future in a way the world needs them to.
As the talent and research imperatives continue to grow, universities and the extensive abilities they house are going to have to become easier to navigate: less bureaucratic and providing a clear path of entry for external partners. Because change has become so rapid, industry will need to have the confidence that it can tap into that talent, solve its research problems and commercialise the findings at a speed its reality dictates, and with the integrity that only universities can offer.
For many institutions, this will require a type of relationship they may not be used to, and one that may at first be uncomfortable. The challenge of moving into this space will not be one of ability but one of culture. Meeting the needs of a changing world will require a greater understanding of emerging problems beyond academia and a vision that expands well past the boundaries of campus.
The reality is that change for universities has been coming for decades. The only question is how ready we are to adapt to it.