A two-level transformative decade for higher education

Global challenges call for “universities without walls”. Drawing from his experience in the Higher Education Reform Expert (HERE) teams, Chafic Mokbel discusses the future of the sector from a Lebanese perspective, analysing the link with modern technologies and scientific developments, as well as the potential role of university networks in responding to global challenges. Tools developed in the past years are strong elements that can serve to accompany transformations in Europe and beyond.

The new challenges that higher education faces in the coming decade are unprecedented - not only in their amplitude and scope, but in their very nature. Such challenges can be broken down into two levels: responding to external global needs and a kind of introspection about human knowledge and the structures needed for its development and transmission.

As identified in the EUA vision for 2030, “Universities without walls”, the issues that higher education must respond to are global and have transformative impacts on societies and human knowledge. They can be classified as societal (democracy, tolerance, demographic changes, polarisation, economic development, etc.), related to the physical world (climate change, sustainability, pandemic, health, etc.), and/or technological (rapid development of science and technology, digital transformation, artificial intelligence, etc.). They induce anthropological changes and thereby touch the core of the university as a moral entity.

In addition, the sphere of knowledge is increasing tremendously, the walls between disciplines are more porous or even falling, the barriers between memory and intelligence are no longer rigid, and the identity parentship relation between a university and its context needs to be integrated as one colour in a rainbow. This calls for a reflection about the alignment between academic structures and the development and transmission of human knowledge – in order for universities to remain the needed reference point for knowledge and scientific “truth”.

In this context, the proposal in the EUA 2030 vision to reinforce networks of universities would unleash the full potential of European higher education and leverage the reforms conducted within the Bologna Process and the successes of the various European programmes (Erasmus+, Horizon Europe, etc.) over the past decades. It is commonly admitted that global challenges need global and concerted responses. In this regard, networks of universities where complementarity is sought within unity form a potential tool. They would support better responses to the external challenges mentioned above. University networks may result in a new reality more capable of dealing with global challenges and remaining much-needed reference points of a scientific “truth” that is more data-driven and continuously increasing in volume. Furthermore, such networks augment efficiency in finding solutions to societal challenges. Following the logic, constructive competition would need to take place between the networks as a leverage for pursuing progress.

In parallel, the digital transformation and the diffusion of artificial intelligence must not be looked at as another set of transversal competences that need to be developed and transferred in our universities. They awake in our spirits the fact that human knowledge is built on experiences and observations, or what we call in modern terminology “data”. Therefore, the philosophy of the mind needs to be revived. The “new technologies”, as we like to name them, or machine learning, question the triangle of meaning of thought, symbol and referent, or, expressed in the philosophy of language, mind, world and language. In parallel to the development of smart machines capable of embracing massive amounts of data, we must search for a translation of what intelligent machines can learn in our own expression of knowledge.

The coming decade will certainly be transformative for higher education. The existing tools developed within EU programmes and the Bologna Process, such as quality assurance, ECTS and qualifications frameworks, will be beneficial in accompanying these transformations. Though they still need to be updated to better cope with the new context. Internationalisation becomes key for developing open and transnational higher education. Thanks to programmes such as Erasmus+, many stakeholders, also outside of Europe, are now prepared to move forward with internationalisation to strengthen transnational cooperation. Mobility objectives shall not be limited to the circulation of skills and the acquisition of intercultural competences, but should be seen as part of an internationalisation that propels the search for solutions to global issues across the different nations. The tandem quality-relevance needs to be revisited to give a new meaning to what quality is in a university without walls and, what might be more relevant skills and competences in the coming decade. Qualifications frameworks, often described as translation of qualifications and as dialogue tools, need to be reviewed with a perspective of enabling and mainstreaming networks and to allow them to build internal complementarity. More details and transparency will be needed for recognition as the range of competences will continue to grow. Recognition of new forms of learning will be more commonly needed. And obviously, due to their local challenges, different systems will have different capabilities in joining in and contributing to these development processes.

Looking to the coming decade from Lebanon, an Erasmus+ partner country outside the European region, leads to directions that are concordant. Collaboration and networking in both the local and international context have become crucial over recent years in facing unprecedented challenges (the pandemic, massification, online learning and teaching, deteriorating infrastructure, loss of key competences, etc.). The Higher Education Reform Expert teams established in the partner countries and supported by the EU’s programme are playing a key role in bridging the different higher education systems and maintaining the dividing gaps within an acceptable margin. Such approaches have potential in scientific diplomacy and sustainable developments.

A transformative period is ahead of us during which walls shall vanish in higher education. We still need to connect and bridge the constituents in all directions. The reform processes successfully developed in the past seem to be more needed to engage in the starting transformative decade.

“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Chafic Mokbel

Chafic Mokbel is Professor of Computer Engineering at the University of Balamand in Lebanon. He has served over the past year as the chair of the Erasmus+ HEREs (Higher Education Reform Experts) in Lebanon and as a member of the SPHERE advisory group.


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