Education and Skills

5 lessons for the future of universities

Jaci Eisenberg
Head of Alumni Relations, World Economic Forum
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Education, Gender and Work

  • Universities can play a vital role in upskilling and reskilling populations in line with countries' needs;
  • Forward-looking universities must address issues of diversity, in particular the economic diversity of their intakes;
  • Commitments to sustainability must be upheld and past institutional values and actions dealt with in the present.

Our world is shifting rapidly and universities too must keep pace. Here are five thoughts forward-looking universities should ponder as they look towards their future.

1. Contributing to upskilling and reskilling

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Judith Rodin, President Emerita of the University of Pennsylvania, argues that there is a role for universities in reskilling. Universities are strong local actors that can “upskill local workers to meet the needs of local employers, and in turn, help their regions grow and thrive.”

Many universities have developed online courses to promote the acquisition of specific skills among a broad base and some work closely with their national governments to align reskilling with a country’s needs. For example, Singaporean universities collaborate with the national government on the Skillsfuture initiative, which aims to inform choices in education, training and careers in service of national needs and to promote a culture of life-long learning.

The forward-looking university explores both internal approaches and collaborative approaches with government and industry partners. Additionally, the World Economic Forum’s Reskilling Revolution Platform offers options for collaborating with diverse stakeholder groups towards reskilling a billion people by 2030.

2. Supporting social mobility

The forward-looking university must seek to expand access to a more diverse – particularly economically diverse – set of applicants. Universities with an exceptional financial footing can adopt a need-blind, no loans approach to make college accessible to economically diverse applications. In 2019, US News and World Report counted just 11 US universities with this policy. Less costly and more effective is making admissions test-optional. As the New York Times reports, “high school grades, considered alone, made for a fairly level playing field for students from different economic backgrounds. But SAT [Scholastic Aptitude Test] scores tilted that playing field in favor of the rich.”

Universities can also expand how they source applicants. One model comes from a foundation. For more than 30 years, the Posse Foundation has supported universities in recruiting a “posse” of students from a public high school, who may have been overlooked by traditional recruitment benchmarks but demonstrate strong leadership potential. The programme recruits an established peer group and provides extensive mentoring throughout their studies. Posse Scholars have a laudable 90% graduation rate.

Finally, universities should play a greater role in spearheading public discourse about higher education to show how universities can help create a more inclusive, less fractured society.

3. Walking the talk on sustainability

Many universities set goals for their sustainability-related research and sustainable campuses and operations. However, there is a real risk that these plans can end up as well-intentioned but ultimately uncompleted exercises.

The world's most sustainable universities
The world's most sustainable universities

The forward-looking university adopts meaningful steps for its university to approach carbon neutrality and to contribute to a carbon-neutral world. There is a global movement asking academics to reduce conference travel and organizers provide many steps universities can undertake to reduce the pressure on academics to fly frequently. Researchers themselves are taking the lead in exchanging knowledge digitally: a group of Swiss oncology researchers hosted a local edition of one of their discipline’s major international conferences. An added benefit of remote participation in conferences is that it can promote a more inclusive research culture.

The forward-looking university also expands its sustainability efforts to its largest community and its largest intervention point: its alumni.

4. Rethinking rankings and evaluation

Academics must demonstrate the reach and impact of their research to obtain employment, receive grant funding and advance in their careers. Universities are required to prove their relative value to be competitive in national schemes and in rankings that drive the public discussion about top universities.

But a university’s desire to obtain a high spot in national schemes and rankings can have adverse effects on the transmission of research findings to a wider audience. A 2019 survey of academics by Rand Europe and Research England found that the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF) should evolve to include more diverse types of outputs that reach a broader public. These may include social media and website content, and research reports for external bodies. Currently, the REF has an overwhelming emphasis on academic journal articles, which comprised 80% of submissions for the 2014 REF cycle, but these have limited traction with a broader audience.


Forward-looking universities must review their participation in rankings schemes and ensure the values requested by the measurements align with the values intrinsic to each metric included.

5. Understanding their past and present

The forward-looking university is committed to reconciling past and present. Since 2015, Georgetown University has been working to reconcile its 1838 sale of 272 slaves to help meet the university’s debts. Its actions have included establishing a research consortium on the topic, special admission considerations for the descendants, naming spaces on campus and special events.

The surviving descendants of the 272 slaves are seeking reparations from the university. The student body voted last year to accept an increase in their fees to pay reparations to the descendants, but the descendants protest that the earmarked amount is not enough to cover the generational reverberations from the slave sale. The dialogue between the university and the descendants is ongoing.

Universities must make good-faith efforts to examine and reconcile their sometimes difficult pasts with their current values.

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