Higher education is at a crucial moment in its history. Two core principles – a commitment to quality and a commitment to equality of access – remain intact, but pretty much everything else is now open to innovation.  Recently, I had the chance to talk about the future of education with a group of senior representatives from the EU and the higher education sector from across Europe.

The move to distance learning

Like all of us in 2020, education providers had to respond very rapidly to a transformed environment. Education – a very people-focused business – had to move out of the classroom and into the virtual environment overnight. The immediate response was to lean hard on the technologies that had been put in place, and for the people on the panel with me, the technology had stood up well. Secure connectivity was vital to keeping things going. Initial euphoria at the speed of the response and the technical capabilities put in place quickly gave way to the realisation that there is an important cultural dimension that is also important to manage. Even the digital native generation of students need to make some adjustments to this new way of learning.

Re-imagining the future

This sector has been particularly quick to move on from crisis response to taking the chance to look at the strategic opportunity that the situation presents and to start the process of re-imagining their future. They see the chance to speed up the modernisation of their own education provision but they also see their importance in preparing the next generation of the workforce as Governments announce stimulus packages to boost their economies. In every case, digital is a big part of government strategy. There is a strong need for more digital skills and there’s significant funding to drive them. Many face a funding gap as international student numbers have dropped so they need to focus on that too.

The new strategic direction

From this discussion with education leaders, the re-assessment of their strategic direction falls into three areas:

  • The student (and teacher) journey. There’s a clear sense of purpose as they think through core requirements. Universities still need to do 3 fundamental things ie. transfer foundational knowledge, transfer more advanced skillsets and, support students’ personal development (eg. debating, empathy, judgement, ethics). It’s already clear that a blended approach will be needed to achieve these and that there will need to be changes to the student journey. Teachers too are experiencing a big disruption to the world they know and they too need new skills to be successful in this environment. As students work at hours that suit them best yet still expect teaching staff to be immediately responsive, it’s clear that the working day can stretch intolerably if not managed. Teachers are used to working closely with small tuition groups at set times, reading the faces of the students and looking each other in the eye. These are things we can’t yet do with a video call.
  • Accelerating the move online. This period has shown us the things that work effectively and efficiently online, and that some of these will never return to the physical environment. There are concerns around privacy and cybersecurity that need to be resolved, but they can be managed. Lectures run well online. Students can have access to expertise and specialist skills from across the globe. Part-time study can be more easily accommodated within a working schedule. Knowledge transfer and exams/assessments can also be very successful online. When location is less important, new public/private partnership opportunities can be investigated too. There are opportunities for new alliances and for an expansion of the Erasmus program.
  • Keeping the personal connection. This move has also shown us the areas that are challenged by the move to digital delivery, and which now need re-thinking. This includes some of the experiential and collaborative aspects of learning, but also pastoral care. Many felt that the new starters in higher education would struggle the most in an entirely virtual scenario and that they need to give this group particular thought as they join higher education institutions and learn to be students.

The value of data

This sector also has the advantage of data going back over many years providing valuable outcome-driven metrics from exam results to employment statistics. They can quickly see what works and what doesn’t work. While some testing is being re-invented (e.g. open-book, longer exams), they can see quickly if they are achieving their teaching goals with the new approaches.

In conclusion

We have the chance to make a lot of progress in a short time. Education and the development of a digitally-skilled workforce is vital to Europe’s continued relevance in a global economy. We have a lot to work through and a lot of aspects to consider, but all in this group expressed optimism around what we can do here. All are ambitious to create something better for the future, as they seek to provide inclusive, high-quality education programs for 21st century students.

Watch highlights of this discussion.



Wendy Mars

Senior Vice President

President - Cisco EMEA