26 February 2020

Gurteen Knowledge Cafe: The University of the Future

It is great news that David Gurteen is planning to run several Knowledge Cafes in London this year and good news that I was able to make the first one.

Keeping with the good news, it was held at Regent's University, in Regent's Park funnily enough, and it is always nice to have an excuse to go there. The travel worked reasonably well (Richmond to Hammersmith to Baker Street and then walk) and I got there around 6:15pm which gave me plenty of time to have a few veggie sarnies and a cup of coffee before the event started at 6:30pm. I also had the chance to say "hello" to a few of the other regulars.

The reason we were there was to discuss The University of the Future.

At first glance this is of little interest to me but, on the other hand, I was involved with schools for several years, I like to go out of my comfort zone and I love Gurteen events.

The session was expertly introduced by Peter Sharp who, amongst many other things, has a PhD in Knowledge Management and has worked in the field of business management and professional skills at Regent's University.

In a few drawings (a welcome change from the usual slide format) he explained some of the pressures that universities were under in several areas including money, expectations on all sides, and competition.

That set the conversations rolling. As usual we did these in three rounds of small table discussions (with people moving to different tables in each round) before having a group discussion at the end. Also as usual I took very few notes at the time because the conversations got in the way and what follows is a mix of these notes, additional memories and subsequent analysis in a desperate attempt to produce something coherent.

I do not usually comment on the conversations themselves but it is worth doing so this time because they had a different feel. Having universities as the theme attracted a lot of people from universities which tended to restrict the scope of some of the conversations and they were restricted even further, in my experience, as they seemed to have come with their answers prepared rather than waiting for the conversations to provide some. They were still good conversations, perhaps I felt that because I was an exception to the universities rule (there were others), and I both enjoyed the evening and learned from it.

Peter Sharp opened by contrasting Balir father (50% to go to university) to son (apprenticeships are better) but we never addressed that argument directly as the argument for apprenticeships was not in the room. I think that was a shame as there are clear issues with the universities model and I would have liked to hear how outsiders playing in the same area feel.

If we look at a cube (sorry, I cannot draw this) with numbers of people along one axis (say 0-6 million), their ages along another (say 0-100) and then all the things that universities might provide to students (academic teaching, clubs and sports, social interaction, etc.) then universities fill a very small part of that cube in that they provide some of those services to only 50% of the population for only 3 or 4 years.

There are many other providers of all of these services and the cube is fully populated. The big question for universities, I feel, is deciding where to be in that cube. For example, it may make sense for them to be more engaged in life-long learning so that they can use their skills, knowledge and facilities to provide formal education after graduation instead of leaving this to professional bodies (e.g. Institute of Chartered Accountants) and probably the easiest way to do this would be to absorb such bodies.

Michael Porter famously said, "The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do" and I think that applies here. There are lots of things that universities do (e.g. sports) and/or are interested in doing (e.g. teaching life skills like critical thinking) that may be best left to others with universities commission these services for their students for the period that the have them.

Part of this is to ensure that useful skills, like critical thinking, are not exclusively the property of the 50% or so who go to university but are available to all. Someone ranted in the final whole-group session on how this focussing reasoning skills on just the elite had enabled Brexit and Trump. It was me.

There are a lot of players and potential customers in the university world, in its broadest sense, and I think university will operate better if they become part of the community rather than just a campus.

[The photo from the event was copied from cooperativelearning.works who also wrote a blog about it.]

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