01 July 2010

Thinking Ahead

Written by Published in Technology

Sublime talks to top figures in the field of education to find out their views on the future of learning.


'Technologies alone do not change the future of higher education – creative minds do'

Anders Hallberg, Vice-Chancellor, Uppsala University, Sweden

Sublime: What is your vision for the future of education, of learning?

Anders Hallberg: At Uppsala University, we try to instil the view that each component of learning must be based on science and scholarship. By this I mean that even the basic courses should reveal to the students that their teachers are also involved in work that goes beyond the classroom. I am convinced that we must maintain this stance, and not resort to adjusting the level of teaching to whatever standard that threatens to infringe on our scientific and scholarly efforts.


Second, I firmly believe in systems of evaluation of both research and education. A few years back at Uppsala University, we had panels of 170 international experts benchmark our research. This has given us a comprehensive overview of where we stand and how we compare internationally. Our methods have since been applied at several other Swedish universities. Rankings are notoriously imprecise, but can still serve as external indicators on a global level. Large-scale peer evaluations, however, give universities hard data and information that can be used to improve their internal distribution of funds towards the fields that best need them , as well as serve as a basis for discussions about funding with government and other grant-giving institutions. We now work with a similar evaluation that will look at our undergraduate teaching.


Strengthening the link between teaching and research, and continually scrutinising the work we do are ways to continue improving; something which is, of course, absolutely vital for any institution within our sector.


S: What do you think the education system will be like in ten years’ time?

AH: Universities will remain havens for creative thinking, as indeed they have been for more than 500 years. Obviously, Uppsala University is entirely different today to what it was in 1477. We are creatures of every different mode of thinking, and of forging the world, that have come into being since that time, from scholasticism and the Enlightenment and so on. But universities have always aimed at producing new knowledge and people who can apply this knowledge in society. In this sense, the education system in ten years’ time will rest on the same foundations.


Smaller, less comprehensive institutions of higher education will have to become more specialised in the future. Universities such as Uppsala will continue to draw strength from their diversity. However, we must continue to improve means of cooperation between our faculties, schools and institutes, as well as find partners nationally and internationally. Not least, the areas within sustainability will benefit from such a development. At Uppsala, we have created the multidisciplinary Uppsala Centre for Sustainable Development in order to work towards this end. Diversity and cooperation are the key words for the future of higher education.


S: In what ways do you think the role of universities around the world will change in the future?

AH: Universities will play an immensely important role for the future well-being of our planet. No doubt the development of new technologies and vital findings within the basic sciences will help solve some of the most pressing matters we have to face: the impending energy crisis (however you conceive this scenario), conflicts and wars, resistance to antibiotics and infectious diseases, cancer and so on. Universities are without a doubt our best hope in solving many of the problems of the future. We have a tendency to play down our social and global responsibilities. At some point, we must try to articulate our efforts in order to justify the trust that we ask society to place in us. Perhaps we need to become more confident as makers of manners, as shapers of the future.


S: How do you feel about a ‘mentor–protégé’ system of learning, giving talented individuals the opportunity to work closely with their masters? Do you think it is an effective, worthwhile method of learning?

AH: I make a point of telling new professors that one of their most important tasks as educators, scientists and scholars is that of being a role model. Our students must look to their professors not only as teachers, but also as academic examples, not in order to copy them, but rather as someone they can scrutinise and eventually try to surpass in their efforts. I believe this is the way science and scholarship has always worked, and the way we eventually push boundaries. As such, the mentor–protégé system of learning must include a component of criticism in order to be fully efficient in the long run.

What are the main factors, in your view, that are shaping the future of education – for example, technology?

AH: The development of new technologies will no doubt continue, and this will of course be invaluable to the sciences, both in terms of innovation and in education. Over the past century, science itself and the education of science have taken giant leaps forward thanks to the development of new technologies, which sometimes give us the illusion that other disciplines have been left behind. However, I am convinced that the humanities and the social sciences will regain their stature as our world grows more complex technologically, sociologically and financially. We have an intrinsic need to understand who we are and where we are going. Hard science alone cannot give us these insights. I think we must regain trust in ourselves as universities in order to reach our full potential. In all, technologies alone do not change the future of higher education – creative minds do.


S: What is your opinion of the Swedish higher education system?

AH: We are currently undergoing a refashioning of the Swedish higher education system that is both necessary and reinvigorating. Universities are gaining a more independent relationship vis-à-vis the government, we are experiencing a revamped system of funding and we are putting even more effort into our so-called innovation systems that aim at the commercialisation of our research, not least within the field of renewable energy. I have great faith in the Swedish higher education system, both as a national resource and as an actor in the global arena.

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