| 5 minute read

A story about decay and renewal and what it means for universities

Arno Meerman

In the coming weeks, we will be bringing you insights from our recent conference in Budapest, where we were joined by over 400 boundary spanning champions. We share a thought-provoking discussion, recorded onsite, about championing diversity, equity and inclusion in institutions.

In this article, UIIN CEO, Arno Meerman, transports us back to the historic streets of Budapest with a thought-piece about decay and renewal and what it means for the future of universities.

On the morning of the first day of the #UIINconf, I went on a run through beautiful Budapest on a path up to the citadel and down along the Danube. I passed Buda Castle, which was once the house of the Hungarian Kings, and is now merely an artefact of the past and a memory of what once was, rather than what is. It got me thinking about the future of universities, the future of these grand institutions of our knowledge society.. is it guaranteed or is there an impeding black swan event that they are not prepared for?

Over the years, castles have become obsolete. As our society advanced, castles lost their purpose: to protect the people and be a signal of importance. But IMAGINE for a moment that they would have had the foresight and ability to transition themselves into something different, to avoid going into ruin.

This very concrete image of obsolescence made me reflect and question the future of universities. What if universities, similar to castles, do not react to changing circumstance and miss out on their opportunity for change?

Imagine the year is 2100, and the concept of the university as we have known it for over 1000 years has ended. For too many years they, just like castles, did not transform and change with their societies’ needs. Rather, they ignored these external forces such as the reduction in funding, the negative ROI for students on their tuition fees, graduates lacking necessary skills for employment. Focusing on their rankings and becoming a dime in a dozen rather than embracing their core mission and unique role, they did not adapt, work with and respond to other education, knowledge and research providers coming to market. Simply put, they have been replaced… replaced by less trustworthy and less social-minded, yet more cost-effective solutions and organisations such as Youtube, Linkedin, ChatGPT, Udemy and others. Because, for too long, they have listened to those internally who don’t see the need for change.

Peter Drucker once said “If you want to know what the future is, be part of its development.”

Universities should not FOLLOW the conversation, they should LEAD it, and be part of it. They themselves should be drivers of change. This is not just about university-industry engagement. More so it is about the future of education and the impact of research and striving towards advancing our knowledge society.

Imagine, we would create universities without entry-barriers and stop looking at our programs as bachelor and master programs for 18 to 24 year olds, but rather universities become a fluid learning environment that everyone can be a part of. A learning environment without stage gates, including recognition of prior learning, micro credentials, coaching and mentoring by both young and old. An environment where education is always up to date and informed by our external environment.

Imagine, we would create a university without walls, one that is embedded in its region and an environment where students, academics, entrepreneurs and the community blends into the same space and place. Entrepreneurs-in-residence supporting university start-ups, and with commercial and non-profit stakeholders based on university campus. An organisation that functions as a launching pad and growth vehicle for student and academic entrepreneurs alike.

Imagine, we would have a university that is ready for the future, an institution that is easy to navigate and collaborate with. One where the external stakeholders know where to knock-on-the-door, with navigators ensuring that all find their way. A university that is aligned to both regional and global challenges, one that provides solutions for and with society. A university that functions as a telescope into the future of innovation, and functions as a supporting environment for regional stakeholders.

On my run, I also came across this statue of two people reaching out to each other across the Danube… Most universities think that the academics and students are the most important asset that they have, and overlook the importance of their professional staff. We need you, our change makers and boundary spanners. Those that are willing to take the leap, that focus on opportunities, not problems. The ones that see that doing the right thing is more important than doing it right.

I ask you all, the boundary spanning heroes, the gardeners planting seeds across universities and industry, the navigators of the innovation ecosystem, the partnership happiness coordinators, to not just acknowledge, but embrace how important you are for the future of science and its impact

We at University Industry Innovation Network (UIIN) are here to help you reach your full potential as a change maker. We would welcome to opportunity to join you on your journey of anchoring the impact of higher education and research and advancing our knowledge society.


Arno Meerman (author) is the Founder and CEO of UIIN.

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