Universities of the future: making work-based higher education work

Dr Abena Dadze-Arthur, Anita Mörth & Professor Eva Cendon

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the only significant event that marks the dawn of a new era. According to UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP-UNESCO), globally an estimated 590 million people will be in higher education (HE) by 2040, including more non-traditional learners, who work and study at the same time, than ever before. Inevitably, this begs the question: how can higher education institutions keep up with this expansion and diversification, while effectively equipping graduates for what the World Economic Forum refers to as the fourth industrial revolution?

A new urgency

The good news is that modern conceptualisations of ‘knowledge’ already recognise the imperative of joining up what was regarded hitherto as two incongruous entities: academic scholarship and professional practice. Ongoing debates highlight various compelling imperatives for effectively integrating academia and the world of work within the context of HE: economists emphasise the pertinence of spurring economic growth and re-fashioning national skill formation by aligning formal HE with the needs of contemporary and future labour markets. Educationalists stress the importance of creating competitive knowledge economies by shifting to learner- and employer-centred models of HE, and prioritising continuous professional development and lifelong learning. Moreover, policy-makers and governmental leaders call to mind the Bologna process, and the commitment of national HE systems to implement far-reaching institutional, organisational and cultural changes that respond to the advances of the 21st century.

The inevitability of work-based higher education

As a result, it is slowly dawning on HE institutions worldwide that in order to form skills, knowledge and behaviours that are not only relevant to contemporary and future labour markets, but also meet a nation’s economic and welfare priorities of the 21st century, university students must be exposed to classroom-based learning at the university as well as experiential learning in the workplace. Consequently, systematic collaborations between academic and professional stakeholders are increasingly inevitable in modern tertiary education. There is a substantial role for HE institutions in workforce development, just as much as employing organisations and industry sector bodies have an important part to play in higher education. Universities of the future must provide work-based, or at least work-integrated, learning opportunities that place students at the centre as self-directed learners and self-managing practitioners.

A paradigmatic change

However, evolving higher education institutions to become universities of the future requires a paradigmatic shift that ‘creatively disrupts’ deeply entrenched beliefs, practices and institutions around the incongruity of academia and the world of work. Such a shift must come with a new pedagogy that bridges unhelpful binaries between ‘theory’ and ‘practice’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘competence’, and ‘classroom’ and ‘work-site’. The transformative processes associated with a paradigmatic change must also facilitate new innovative collaborations with non-traditional partners, bringing together HE institutions, employers, industry associations, sector bodies, and professional or technical educational providers. Moreover, the change must bring with it novel approaches to calibrating HE education to employer and sector needs that adopt a long-term view and are capable of avoiding the temporary or short-term priorities of industries and economic sectors. Last but not least, the transformation will not be sustainable if university operating procedures fail to undergo far-reaching reforms in the way they ‘do’ admission, registry, finance, marketing and liaison with external stakeholders.

No one size fits all

Of course, the old adage ‘different strokes for different folks’ holds true and there is no single, one-size-fits-all blueprint that universities are able to follow in transforming and joining-up HE with forms of experiential learning in professional practice. Instead, HE providers, and their constituent faculties, have to develop their very own, tailored approaches to adapting work-based HE. Without a doubt, this is no easy task as a successful transformation hinges not only on a university’s internal structures, institutions and its opportunities for agency, but also on external factors, such as legal frameworks, national and regional policies, local economies, regional labour market demands, employer needs, industry standards, and so forth. Having said that, good practice examples can be powerful catalysts in achieving a paradigmatic change because they not only make explicit the factors that create positive results and drive transformation, but they expand conceptions of what is possible.

International trailblazers

The recently published report ‘International Trailblazers: Work-Based Higher Education in Selected HE Institutions in the US, England and Denmark. Results of an International Case Study Research Project’ offers just such insight into good practice by mapping in detail the diverse approaches to work-based higher education of five trailblazers across the US, England and Denmark. Innovative, work-based study programmes developed by visionary departments and institutes at Drexel University, University of Pennsylvania, Middlesex University, University of Birmingham, and Aarhus University are presented using a case study approach and deploying data triangulation from national and institutional perspectives. Although the cases differ widely, the report is able to identify a range of factors as pertinent for making work-based education work, including productive partnerships, a purposeful division of staff roles, formalised links to ensure a pedagogy that systematically integrates theoretical, experiential and peer-based learning, permeability between HE and professional training routes, deliberate but flexible government policies and funding incentives, and an impetus for change. Those HE providers that are ready to transform to universities of the future can gain a great deal from these insights, including much inspiration for structural, institutional, operational, pedagogical and cultural changes.

 

Abena Dadze-Arthur is a public management scholar and currently researches work-based higher education for Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research at the University of Hagen in Germany. She also works as an Associate at INLOGOV, where she has been teaching online master-level courses since 2012. Prior to that, Abena spent 10 years working as a public policy reform specialist for various governments in Abu Dhabi, London, and Paris. Her main research interests focus on the transferring and brokering of knowledge across and within institutional and cultural boundaries, and situated agency and cognition under conditions of change.

Photo copyright: Hardy Welsch

Anita Mörth is an educational scientist working with the Department for University Continuing Education & Teaching and Learning at the FernUniversität in Hagen, Germany. Prior to that she was working in quality management at a university for professional studies in Austria before she became a research associate and quality manager at the Berlin University for Professional Studies, Germany. Her main research interests focus on identifying key concepts of current and future formations of continuing higher education, as well as conceptions of learning, gender, and diversity. 

Eva Cendon is an educational scientist and Head of the Department of University Continuing Education & Teaching and Learning at the FernUniversität in Hagen, Germany. She also heads the research team of a government-funded German-wide initiative “Aufstieg durch Bildung – offene Hochschulen“ (Advancement through Education: Open Universities), which involves her working with over 100 universities in Germany on developing new programmes for lifelong learning. Her main research interest lies in linking academic and professional knowledge in university teaching and learning. She engages in participatory, future oriented research on issues concerning universities of the future.

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