Making global education fit for the future

Higher education could be on the edge of a huge change. To make it fit for the future we need to think long-term — and involve the next generation.

Cat Tully writes: Today is only the second UN International Day of Education. So it’s a good day to reflect on the value of foresight for the global education sector, and (for me personally), a good day to reflect on participating in UNESCO’s recent Global Futures Literacy Design Forum [SR1] and my collaboration, as Chair of Futuristic Thinking at Kuala Lumpur’s UNIRAZAK University, with the Malaysian Higher Education sector.

For those with an interest in building positive long-term futures there is perhaps no more important area of global public policy. Education is a driver of long-term economic growth, a source of human flourishing, a key to human capital development, a motor of national cohesion and an important tool of nation-branding and soft power.

Fertile ground

The sector should be fertile ground for foresight. By definition, investment in education will pay off on a medium- to long-term horizon, a generation or two ahead. Educational institutions — schools, universities, even nursery schools — have an obvious stake in our shared future. They shape our future employees, entrepreneurs and citizens. But both the UNESCO and Malaysian projects have underlined for me that:

i. better futures thinking — as is developing quickly in Malaysia — is urgently needed across the global education sector — and

ii. foresight is a vitally important skill to teach students preparing to enter a world of unprecedented volatility and uncertainty. By foresight I mean a a systematic approach to thinking through possible futures in order to make better decisions today.

Too often, inertia at institutional level has meant the sector has replicated what worked in the past. From outmoded subjects to out-of-date methods of instruction and examination, in some respects, the western European education sector has not changed much in 120 years.

Full academic dress on show at Oxford

Shaking up higher education

Multiple disruptive trends look set to shake up the sector in the next 2–3 decades. Think of the impact of the so-called ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, or changing student demographics (with more emphasis on lifelong learning), or growing internationalisation (adding pressure to compete and innovate), or the challenges of ‘always on’ working cultures for the future of wellbeing.

All of this is amid a fast-changing world of work and feedback from industry and employers that graduates simply aren’t equipped for the jobs of today (or tomorrow).

In short, we may be on the verge of a radical departure from the one-size-fits-all model of teaching and assessment which has dominated western universities for decades.

Thinking ahead to 2040:

1. Will our image of ‘a student’ change as we move towards a norm of lifelong learning for people at all ages and stages of life?

2. What changes can we expect to see in approaches to teaching, learning and assessment, in the era of digitalisation and the rise of the robot professor?

3. Will ‘the university’ survive, and in what form, as the key convening institution of higher learning? As Adrian Kuah, Director of the Futures Office at the National University of Singapore, recently asked: “Where, what and when is the ‘university’?”

Some of the key trends and uncertainties are explored (from the Malaysian perspective, but with global resonance) in the book I recently published alongside my academic colleagues at UNIRAZAK, Rethinking Higher Education — trends to 2030. It’s the culmination of a year-long programme of work to explore higher education futures, commissioned by Malaysia’s Ministry of Education. We explore a range of trends on the horizon including:

Changes to teaching methods, with the rise of:

  • digitalised course delivery
  • remote learning
  • more modular learning tailored around a learner’s schedule
  • micro-certifications in specific applied topics relevant to field of work
  • experiential on-the-job learning
  • more group learning as ‘shared experience’ instead of isolated study.

These may be combined with a move away from universities as physical campuses offering ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ periods of concentrated full-time study towards being individualised, personalised learning platforms that cater to individuals’ cognitive and behavioural preferences:

Shifts of outlook and swift pivots will be required from both individual providers and national policymakers in order to become respond in an agile way to these medium- to long-term trends — and to thrive in a meticulously ranked global education marketplace.

Teaching futures

The UNESCO futures literacy event brought together practitioners, researchers, teachers and the public to advance the ‘futures literacy’ agenda. UNESCO is developing a framework for teaching Futures literacy and supporting a network of international academics to research and mainstream futures thinking into HE. The event prepared the ground for a UNESCO Ministerial Summit on Futures Literacy in late 2020 at which countries will look at how best to integrate Futures Literacy into [governments’ public service planning.

At both UNESCO and in Malaysia there was also close thinking given to the need to equip young people to think about their (individual and collective) futures. We need to embed foresight skills in the teaching curriculum, offering ‘applied foresight’ classes to help students become confident practitioners and go on to apply foresight in their working lives. It’s now well-recognised that how students are taught to think is as important as what they learn. Futures thinking, in encouraging us to identify, unpick and reconstruct our mental models of what the future may look like, is in effect a form of metacognition.

Peter Bishop’s Teach the Future initiative provides some fabulous resources to get started in the classroom and lecture hall. The key skills include students learning to:

  • Continuously challenge their own and others’ assumptions about the future, ‘official futures’ or blue skies futures by conducting rigorous and evidence-based analysis of trends and drivers of change.
  • Regularly scan the horizon for threats, opportunities, trends and ‘weak signals’ of slow burning ‘boiling frog’ trends.
  • Systematically anticipate alternative plausible futures (scenarios).
  • Draw out the policy/operational implications of those scenarios, to make more robust choices for their business, community or individual career.

Education futures and participation

Finally, thinking about shared futures is best done collectively. For many future-minded countries such as Malaysia, thinking about education futures is primarily about feeding economic growth and developing knowledge-intensive industries so as to seize the opportunities of a changing global marketplace for jobs.

Pupul Bisht, 2018 NGFP Award Winner. Image: SOIF.

But education, fully conceived, is the act of building whole societies. The design of education futures thus needs to be participative — bringing young voices, the ‘targets’ of education policy into conversations about what the schools, universities and nursery schools of the future might look like.

Participative futures thinking is not just fairer; it is also better-informed and more robust. Speaking with me on the panel at UNESCO in Paris, then, was inspiring young futures thinker Pupul Bisht, winner of the 2018 Next Generation Foresight Practitioners’ Award. She’s just one of the Next Generation Foresight Practitioners who are running projects to grow the foresight capabilities of young people, from a school for young futurists in the Philippines to a comic book illustrating global risks.

Their message to the rest of us is clear: whether in global education or health policy, it is young people’s futures we are designing. Let’s bring them in.

Cat Tully is founder and Managing Director of SOIF, the School of International Futures. The Unirazak book Rethinking Higher Education in Malaysia can be downloaded from here as a complete pdf.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade