| 6 minute read

Reinventing higher education with Santiago Iñiguez

Madeline Arkins

As part of our Future Universities podcast series, our Associate Partner Todd Davey sat down with Santiago Iñiguez, President of IE University Madrid and contributor to UIIN’s Future of Universities thought book to discuss the role of universities in society at present, and going forward, as well as his own experience in learning innovations at IE University.

Listen to the first part of our conversation with Santiago here:

IE University – stretching the boundaries of the traditional university

IE University began as a graduate business school and received university status in 2009. It being a young institution has allowed IE to reinvent many aspects of its culture and their business-orientation, evident in its governance as a not-for-profit institution, they reinvest the profits that their activities generate, but make decisions more like a company than a college. In doing so, they are better equipped to respond to demands and approvals more quickly than other universities. For those looking to change universities to make them more impactful, Santiago asserts, it may require the sacrifice of some “sacred cows” of the institution such as academic tenure, promotional criteria, how to finance activities, and relevance of research. Such adaptations are evident all over the world, for example, it was once thought that adjunct professors lacked the academic pedigree required in order to teach a class. Fortunately, many universities today rely on the teaching contributions of adjunct professors who offer add enormous potential to the learning process.

If universities have to respond to needs of society, they need to operate like other organisations: quickly”.

IE live and breathe this ethos in a number of ways: they have a single faculty with five schools in order to avoid siloes and over-specialisation, and favour cross-disciplinary research, combining the liberal arts tradition of the Anglo-Saxon world, with specialisation and relevance to the labour market. Moreover, they emphasise a strong preparation in management regardless of one’s degree. To some extent IE may be described as a “disruptor,” an identifier that, Santiago admits, is occasionally viewed negatively as opportunistic in the eyes of academia.

Examining the role of universities in providing a location for discourse

In the contentious topic, Santiago states that one should not contradict proven fact, but open concepts should be the subject of debate; that is the spirit of universities. The question is how we can preserve freedom of expression on campus whilst simultaneously preserving respect and tolerance for others, not merely just “tolerating” one another. As President, he will take any measure possible in order to provide space for open debate in language that is respectful. If universities want to enhance inclusion, then they should take the necessary measures in terms of criteria for admissions, affirmative action etc., something that Santiago is certainly in favour of exercising in order to more quickly affect change and equality. IE live out this principle with focussed recruitment initiatives to reach a gender balance amongst faculty, and over 140 different nationalities within their student body that they credit as being an integral part of the learning process.

Learnings from innovations at IE:

  • Personalisation: Where previously education was seen as a form of standardisation, with each candidate receiving the same level of knowledge, today technology offers the possibility of potentiating an individual’s capabilities and strengths. IE assesses students’ (undergrad, masters and those in executive education) needs and considers their skills and preferences to make a more enjoyable and familiar learning environment and enhance the potential of each student.
  • Learning analytics: Applications such as face-recognition software can measure students’ level of comprehension in class. Other examples collect data about student performance over time, to highlight where students may benefit from more targeted mentorship
  • Liquid learning format: IE University has been active in hybrid formats over the past 20 years and through their experience have understood how to combine digital content, platform and faculty preparation in order to replicate, and even improve the learning experience.
  • The strengths of synchronous and asynchronous learning: Employing both synchronous learning (happening at the same time) and asynchronous learning (methods taking place over time, not necessarily at the same time e.g., a week-long forum) and training the faculty to manage both formats can elevate the education process. An asynchronous format allows a longer learning momentum for participants to interact at their own pace. When you employ both formats you offer space for a richer, and more intellectual discussion across students of different personality types.
  • The WOW Room: An auditorium at IE to allow interaction between participants in-person and those online, that can be easily run by the professor. It consists of one screen per participant, and the professor/presenter orchestrating the session from the centre; this replicates the format of an in-person class to enhance the experience for students and professors and make it possible to virtually visit places impossible to visit in-person.

Universities’ current role and looking to the future

The role of universities today in a world plagued with challenges, according to Santiago, is to, “help the different societies where operate to become more peaceful, wealthy, inclusive, and more just.” These challenges include wars, climate change, and the onus to tackle the SDGs identified by the United Nations. Countries that have better educational systems perform better in terms of economy, entrepreneurship, and societal inclusion. Universities, Santiago asserts, are no longer the ivory towers of yore where arcane research was produced with little to no application to the outside world. They are now embedded in societies, called on to produce impactful research, and the best possible graduates to aid in positive social change.

Education is the key engine for the transformation of society; the more you invest in education, the better society you can achieve in terms of stability”.

Santiago also offered his predictions on the role of universities and areas of concern in the future:

  • Further personalisation and adaptation of degrees and certificates to capture the essence of a student’s experience
  • Life-long learning, re-skilling and up-skilling to tackle the growing issue of the world’s aging population and inevitable increase in retirement age
  • Increased production of university research that is connected to the real problems of companies and organisations, as well as expanded links with professionals
  • Continued growth of micro-credentials, with more sophisticated learning tools available, and hopefully, increased assessment of their validity
  • Widening access to education

When asked how to support the movement of university reform from within institutions themselves, Santiago affirms that though public universities often may grapple with the difference of opinion and protest of other stakeholders, with the willingness of academics and major stakeholders, the support of government, and a business-orientation to public administration, change is possible.

Listen to the second part of the conversation with Santiago here:

Stay tuned for the next episode on this series and don’t forget to follow us on your preferred podcast platform!


Madeline Arkins (author) is a Project Officer at UIIN. In her work she focuses on topics relating to social impact and innovation in regional ecosystems.

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