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Plenary 4: Meeting challenges together

02 October 2017

For the final plenary of the EUA Learning & Teaching Forum in Paris Adam Gajek, Vice-President of the European Student’s Union, Liliana Gorla, HR Director at Siemens, France and Patti McGill Peterson, Presidential Advisor for Global Initiatives, at the American Council on Education were drawn together by chair, Grace Neville, Emeritus Professor at the University College Cork, Ireland to discuss priorities, experiences and expectations.

_MG_9124We must allow students to achieve their potential was the core message conveyed by Gajek. Drawing on the event location – University Pierre and Marie Curie – Gajek referred to Marie Skłodowska-Curie who overcame significant economic and social barriers to achieve an incredible lifetime output. Curie was the first women to win a Nobel prize; the first person to win a Nobel prize in two different disciplines; the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris and the first woman to be entombed on her own merits in the Panthéon in Paris. What more would Curie have achieved, reflected Gajek, if she hadn’t had to face barriers?

Greater focus on teaching competencies for academics as well more emphasis on the student–teacher relationship were also called-out.

“Don’t treat students as different species. Perceive us as people who have diverse ways of learning. Be student centred teachers and institutions. Not all students will be a genius like Marie Curie - but each student deserves a chance to be a genius.”

The main message from Gorla at Siemens was for universities to further embrace and respond to the needs of the outside world.

“The type of profile that we need to recruit is different from the past. We look for people who are prepared for change. Yes we look for technical competencies when we recruit engineers, but soft skills are becoming more important than technical competences.”

Gorla highlighted the importance of giving students the opportunity, at various stages of their student life, to really interact with the outside world referring to the value of internships and enterprise–student collaboration. She cited Siemens’ ‘Free Innovation’ initiative at the University of Copenhagen, where students are invited to work with industry on revitalising valid but unused patents.

A review of credit allocations for such initiatives was desirable, thought Gorla, because “students need this activity to be ready for the external market.”

Turning to the USA, McGill Peterson commented on the macro pressures on all universities drawing on parallels between the developments in Europe and in the USA.

Higher Education is moving, she said, from “serving elites to serving the masses.” “Centrifugal forces are pushing on universities so much so that they have forced us to find the centre.” The effect, McGill Peterson says, is more reflection on quality and on the effectiveness of what we do.

What is the university’s central mission? Who do we serve? How do we know we do that well?

McGill Peterson turned towards the USA’s liberal arts and science colleges as a source of inspiration for addressing the challenge of new students and meeting their needs. “These institutions are very student centric and committed to undergraduates so their mission is more defined.”

She also talked to the need to look at students more holistically. How are we preparing them to be whole persons? Here she referred to the idea that no matter your major, you have core knowledge. Perhaps we need a different language for soft skills she reflected, “soft skills sounds soft – maybe we need to say interdisciplinary skills.”

McGill Peterson mentioned the role of foundations in the USA, such as the Gates and Carnegie Foundations, as a way to fund innovation and support new ways of learning that don’t come from government. She also saw value in having a national organisation focused on teaching and learning.

EUA’s Trends and Track-It projects were praised, and collaborations with the EUA - ‘a long and fruitful relationship’ – were referenced including future work on the issue of equality of access. “We want to look beyond USA to find successful practices,” McGill Peterson said.

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