Organizing Universities for the Knowledge Economy

Focus on Research-Based Learning

Many universities around the world organize themselves to be excellent in research, some more effectively than others, according to the ranking criteria of the Shanghai ranking. The general criteria that universities want is to excel in a number of fields in research, as measured by citations, patents, and levels of attractiveness to national and foreign researchers. They also want to at least have a minimum standard in other fields. This is a good starting point for the achievement of excellence.

Universities are first and foremost concerned with education. A casual look into the strategic plans of universities shows their dedication to excellence in the education dimension as well as along the research axis. Yet, a clear-cut reliance on the needs of graduates is mostly absent. Systematic research on those evolving needs, including the use of the opinions of alumni and their employers in curriculum reform, is more often the exception than the rule. In accreditation procedures there is some attention to these aspects (differing by country), but mostly it is merely lip service. Also systematic thinking about effective learning of students and the related educational methods is not always well developed within universities. Educational departments (focusing on university education within their own university) have not always been well received by the “professionals” in other departments and sometimes have lacked the support of the university leadership.

An obvious way for creating a culture of excellence in education is a strong education-research group, which supports the talent development of students from the perspective of the needs of graduates to function well. Such groups also can help greatly in educational innovations, such as problem-based learning or blended learning. International visibility of such groups in terms of publications in journals on learning for the needs of graduates can be helpful in establishing a reputation within their own university. An example is Maastricht University, which pioneered the problem-based approach to medical education with a strong medical education-research group headed by a professor. They also invited dialog with the medical education community through a journal on medical education. Other departments followed along the same lines.

The introduction of university-education research in universities as in Maastricht is certainly not unique. Often such education-research divisions, however, languished and were abolished after a few years of existence. They were not considered by the peers in the different departments as being sufficiently relevant. The key to the importance of their role in Maastricht University seems to have been that they were both general and department specific. Every department has its own professor(s) of medicine, law, economics, and so forth, with a sufficiently conscientious staff to be involved in measurement of education outcomes and feedback on the manner in which examinations are conducted or the way in which curriculum is composed. These groups work together across departments. They are also actively involved in training educators (nowadays in the form of competency as defined by certificate levels).

The context in which the university operates is an important factor in realizing excellence. It is surprising that even new or expanding universities choose to establish themselves as closed shops, even if there are opportunities to locate (for parts of the university) in a businessor industrial park. Medical departments have always been established close to and often jointly with medical (academic) hospitals. Students learn early on what it takes to be a good doctor by combining theoretical learning with learning in practice. Why is this not happening in other areas, such as engineering, the sciences, or business economics if there are private research establishments in the area? Is it fear for mixing the private with the public sector and losing the public edge in the process? Or is it the desire to maintain its own university world comfort zone, keeping at bay and defending the walls against the potentially problematic and threatening world outside?

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