Skip to ContentSkip to Navigation
Rijksuniversiteit Groningen/Campus Fryslân
Header image Friesestraatweg

Higher Education: A Catalyst for Innovative and Sustainable Societies

Datum:18 november 2016
Auteur:Pieternel de Bie
Pieternel de Bie, at the IAU General Conference 2016 in Thailand
Pieternel de Bie, at the IAU General Conference 2016 in Thailand
Bangkok, November 16, 2016

Bangkok - a city of disco lighted Tuk Tuk's, humid heat and icy air-conditioning, crazy left-driving traffic, smiling Thai, fragrant food, smartphones, massage salons, fluorescent coloured drinks, hipster glasses, sugar and motorcycle honking. The passing of the revered King is present everywhere, his image visible wherever the eye goes, though it does not seem to interfere with daily life. At the hotel I ask for a black ribbon, as I see many people wearing them as a sign of respect and mourning. Now I feel even more comfortable that I can adhere to the conference's dress code of black, white or grey. I wonder whether Thai dress is normally more colourful and I'm impressed by the many men in suits in the 35 degree heat. 

With 327 delegates from over 85 countries, I have the privilege of participating in the 15th general conference of the International Association of Universities, the only global network of universities worldwide, in Bangkok, Thailand. The welcome of the IAU staff and the students from "Chula" University (which is how they call Chulalongkorn University, the host of the event) is very warm and well-organised. At the conference, I seem to be in the company of many rectors, provosts, presidents, chancellors, heads and chairs - people in the leadership of their universities, from all over the world. I have amicable chats with a great variety of wonderfully kind and interesting people during coffee breaks and amazing vegetarian lunches, with many business cards exchanged. Everyone has heard of the University of Groningen and everyone shows great interest in this new, innovative Campus we are building in Friesland. There are many people I will contact when I get back to Leeuwarden in December.
I could not have chosen a better conference to go to, as the theme of the conference, "Higher Education: A Catalyst for Innovative and Sustainable Societies", and the discussions it raises fully support the choices we are making at Campus Fryslan and our vision and strategy as it evolves. Despite of (or thanks to) the stature of my fellow participants, the conversations and sessions are inspiring, insightful, meaningful and in touch with the reality of students and teachers in higher education worldwide, as well as the communities, government and industry higher education institutions (HEI) are connected to. Most of the discussions end up being about 'big questions', like the fundamental role of the university in society and the future of HEI's. What kind of research and teaching is needed to address structural inequalities in our societies, how does our school system prepare students for creation (innovation) and how do we prevent universities from becoming obsolete?
In light of the ensuing dramatic technological shift, the urgent need for innovation and sustainable development, and the irrevocable connection between the global and the local, the general call is for a whole system transformation in higher education. HEI's are openly criticised for their tendency to inhibit their own innovation capacity and are invited to embrace change, to take risks, to create a culture in which students and researchers embrace an attitude of making mistakes. "I have not failed, I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work" (Thomas Edison). In this transformation, technology should be seen as a means (not an end) and blended learning is the accepted format. Sustainability is proposed as an inherently inter- and transdisciplinary endeavour. Education should be about real problems and sustainable development is only achievable through collaboration and inter- and transdisciplinary research and approaches (inclusivity). Many speakers argue this as the ethical responsibility of HEI's as social institutions. It is truly about the power and potential of education. 
It is exciting to see the headway that is made at HEI's around the world. Education is placed firmly in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG's). The Copernicus Alliance, a European network of HEI's, "promotes transformational learning and change for sustainable development within the higher education sector". Transdisciplinarity, also called the "quadruple approach" (HEI, government, industry and community collaboration) or "knowledge co-production" is recognized as a challenging path in current academia and the culture of publishing and ranking. However, it is on the rise and widely accepted as the 'way to go' among all leaders here, "collaboration" being the word of the day. For example, the University of Gothenburg (Sweden), home to the new President of the IAU, has allocated significant funding for transdisciplinary research. As with achieving sustainable development, both within and outside HEI's, university leadership is deemed crucial. And in order for higher education to remain relevant (future-proof), teaching a mix of technical and so-called "transversal" skills is important, says the speaker from the OECD. Internationalisation is framed as global engagement through interdisciplinary collaboration, in which knowledge and information become the new global currency. The more I hear, the more I get excited about the plans for our programmes and Campus!
This excitement is thankfully shared by the participants that attend my presentation on Monday. Unfortunately, my fellow speaker does not show and so, I have an entire hour to fill by myself, in the company of about 25 people. After my presentation, we have a lively discussion with many relevant questions, such as how we will ensure a fundamental knowledge base for our bachelor students, what the incentives are for students to choose such a new Campus, how we ensure that students remain interested in the way in which knowledge is presented (innovative teaching methods) and how we can make the Campus accessible to students from diverse backgrounds. Eventually, a shy Thai student, who I see nodding intensively throughout my presentation, shares her response to these questions and our plans upon my invitation. Eloquently, she explains that what is needed is education for change, in which students learn the importance of change and being open and willing to change. Education for sustainability is not only about knowledge, but also about taking action, she argues. This is what she wants from her higher education experience and she feels that this is exactly what this programme will offer. Awesome.
As the conference concludes on Wednesday with a Chula student presentation on the potential for innovation and sustainable development through the combination of digital technology and higher education, I leave Bangkok full of ideas, with many relevant global contacts and invitations to visit people and universities around the world. What I take back to Friesland is a validation of our plans and many ideas and advice to continue to develop our programmes. Thank you Chula University, IAU, Thailand and Campus Fryslan for such a great experience.