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Recent years have brought a huge expansion of student numbers – up to 150 million worldwide and potentially over 260 million by 2025. In parallel, university wealth has mushroomed, reflected in a myriad of building projects and rising salaries for university leaders.

But critics worry that universities aren’t using their new strength to give more back to the places they’re based in. What’s rewarded in universities is either the quality of teaching, or the quality of research as judged by other academics – both very important, but not the whole story.

Universities could be providing much more brainpower to solve the problems of the communities they live in. But incentives point in the opposite direction, for example towards attracting foreign students, or getting research published, and most rely on very traditional teaching methods – lectures, course notes, tutorials – which turn students away from practical engagement with society.

I predict 2016 will bring the spread of very different methods that harness student brainpower to real life problems. Their aim will be to reconnect universities and the communities they’re in, while also better preparing young people for the future.

Textbook closed

Many universities already show how this could be done, combining traditional courses with team-based projects working with real clients, and drawing on a range of disciplines to solve problems. Examples include McMaster, Olin College of Engineering, parts of Stanford and Harvard, Aalto in Finland, and Monterrey in Mexico.

Beijing’s Tsinghua and Paris’ Centre for Research and Interdisciplinarity at the Sorbonne have been taking this a stage further, encouraging students to do most of their course work on unsolved problems on the cutting edge of science or social innovation, rather than only learning about existing knowledge.

But all of these examples remain pretty marginal. So what could move these approaches from the margins to the mainstream? Four big factors look set to converge in 2016 and beyond.

One is the push from students who want to be useful to the world. Millions of students want to do good and not just get a good degree, a trend that’s visible, for example, in the large numbers of MBA students now studying social entrepreneurship.

The second is students’ wish to be better prepared for work and life. Students are well aware that not much real work involves studying solo to absorb knowledge – the main format of a university education. Understandably they want more real-world experience of problem-solving in teams. The spread of makerspaces, and programmes like Nesta’s Digital Makers, show how much can be learned by making useful things rather than just being a passive observer or consumer of education.

The third factor is a side-effect of technology. Online universities or MOOCs, such as Futurelearn or Coursera, make it easier for students to do traditional learning, for example, completing a course in ancient history or artificial intelligence online. That potentially frees up their time for more hands-on and collaborative learning, just as is happening in secondary schools with the spread of ‘flipped learning’ methods.

Finally, there is the pull from societies, cities and communities needing help to solve their most pressing problems. They certainly want to tap the brains of the smartest academics in their local universities. But they can also benefit greatly from involving students, who are often adept at using data or social media.

Collaborative problem solving

Linking push and pull can happen at a local level, as universities link their work much more closely with the needs of the places where they’re based. Some new universities are also likely to adopt the challenge-driven approach, and in contrast to the very top-down world of MOOCs, these will mobilise bottom-up grassroots innovation, and the cultures of hacking, and collaborative problem solving.

But a particularly exciting possible push could come from the world of development and the United Nations. Traditionally development has been a field for experts and consultants. But imagine if the UN challenged the world’s universities to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals just agreed. All over the world students would design and implement projects around issues like water, gender equality or malnutrition.

Digital platforms would help them collaborate with other teams, sharing ideas and information. Instead of being sent off for a week or two to work on rather superficial projects in poor countries (the very inadequate model used by many elite universities in the West), students would be encouraged to work on the problems on their doorstep.

It’s not far-fetched. It fits with the OECD’s push to make collaborative problem solving a central goal for education systems. And the spread of more challenge-driven universities could be achieved at relatively low cost. No law decrees that university education has to be individualistic, backward-looking and confined to established disciplines. It could be a lot more useful, and, who knows, even a lot more fun.