Developing Citizens for the Future

With the development of a fast-moving, information-driven and more educated society, the role of institutions is changing.

Trusted organisations are now seen as distant and elite or possibly even failing. Our argument here is that institutions in the 21st Century will need to embrace a more fluid, more contingent and more permeable relationship to wider society than ever before, precisely because of the complexity, interrelationships and unpredictability of our times.

This requires greater involvement and interaction from the sector, a new purpose: what we call in this manifesto a new approach to university activity; ‘The Permeable University’. Continue reading for a review of the role of education in developing ‘citizens of the future’, complete with case studies of permeability it practise from around the world.

Delivering permeable education

Permeable education requires re-thinking what and how we teach. Our current students bring with them valuable experience and perspectives which will develop during their time at university and beyond. In our survey of students and alumni, over three quarters considered course knowledge, critical thinking or the ability to find information and evidence among the most valuable skills and abilities gained at university. Critical thinking was particularly valued by those who engaged with research whilst at university. These skills are central to university learning but in the 21st Century we need to ensure they are given a central role in course design and delivery.  

Embrace students as part of a renewed community of scholars

Historically universities always saw themselves as communities of scholars; academics and students. Over time this has been eroded but in the permeable university the community of scholars must include students and all of the university community to be effective. 

Leadership in universities is of necessity dispersed: with shared responsibilities across different groups of staff and students to draw out the best ideas and to debate how we can address the considerable challenges facing our world todayThis diversity of experience will enhance the community: “It’s not enough to simply include people at the table, but to “amplify everyone’s voices, clear barriers … and appreciate each other for our unique backgrounds”. 

The process of reflective learning needs to apply to the whole community of scholars, staff and students together. Students come to university with a wealth of experiences and knowledge and need to be embraced as central to this community. While the academy shares disciplinary knowledge with its students, students need to be recognised for being the experts in their learning. 

72% of students and alumni consider one of various people skills / abilities among the most valuable they gained at university. 

Building personal relationships, engaging with different opinions and learning to network professionally are particularly valued by the students and alumni most likely to recommend their institution. 

Provide opportunities for trans- inter- and multidisciplinary learning

In a world where repeatable tasks are automated the ability to act with a significant degree of originality and creativity will be essential. These skills are difficult to programme even with a very adept learning algorithm. This is likely to require drawing on different methods, approaches and knowledge. 

Learning beyond any one discipline will enable greater capacity for continued learning throughout life – a vital skill in an ever-changing world. For example, the Royal Academy of Engineering defines six engineering habits of mind which, taken together, could be used across a range of disciplines. (Systems thinking, Adapting, Problem-finding, Creative problem-solving, Visualising, Improving). Increasingly, while we do need knowledge acquisition, we need graduates who can adapt and learn for themselves, understanding how to acquire and develop knowledge as our lives change. 

Permeability between disciplines, although grounded in each area’s core knowledge and methods, will support inter/multi/trans-disciplinary working at all levels of study to ensure graduates understand how to approach challenges in their futures. This type of learning requires students to work together to explore challenging questions, drawing on a range of techniques to seek solutions. Permeable teaching encourages learning to work with others, exploring ideas together, questioning assumptions, and problem solving. It is about active and iterative learning, encouraging creativity and play to experiment and refine. These are skills often used in the research process and could form part of education practice at all levels of student work. 

Beyond the university, graduates with these skills will have a lot to offer global institutions as they seek to tackle many of the issues highlighted in our 10 challenges. In particular, we need to value the range of disciplinary approaches: arts, humanities and social science as much as science and engineering, if we are to tackle all the grand challenges we face. 

Reduce boundaries between modes and levels of study

The permeable university should see education as a whole ecosystem with less defined boundaries than were developed in the 20th Century. The divide between school/tertiary and higher education should become more fluid, with learning less defined by age and more by need in relation to a student’s life stage and context, including a focus on lifelong learning. This would have considerable implications for the process of accreditation, standards and recognition of prior learning that will need to focus more on ability and propensity to learn than staged qualifications. 

There is significant distrust and challenge in some parts of the world to fixed points of assessment as reliable markers of attainment from different parts of society; business, the wider public, even different parts of the education sector which needs to be resolved. We should enhance partnerships between other educational providers to share and to learn. This could either create new entities, mixed economy institutions or dual sector universities. 

In the changing world of the 21st Century we support a move away from a heavily prescribed and examined system (exactly the things that can be automated), to recognise knowledge and skills that are more tacit, expressive and developmental. 

As higher educators we also need to explore the growing range of educational options developing across the world, for example, on-demand learning offered in multiple modes, a move away from degrees as the only form of credential offered, towards a more mixed offering of degrees plus shorter cycle qualifications and credentials. 

Universities need to explore how they work with different forms of credentialing such as ‘badged’ micro-credentials and different accreditors beyond the academy. In our survey of students and alumni, more importance was placed on the ability to be adaptable by younger age groups: 33% of 18-34s vs 19% of those over.

Next Section: Permeability in practise