Education has been changing over centuries, reflecting the development and transformation of society, but like any societal change, this is no simple and straightforward process.

Observing the transformation of university education, which is the highest level of formal education, the complexities of societal changes should not be underestimated. When looking for the main challenges pushing for change, we need to go some two centuries back. Namely that was the time when the principal role of universities was to prepare the future elite of society. Therefore, it is not surprising that in that period, less than about 5% of youngsters actually entered university, and they predominantly came from the upper classes. Therefore, they were actually predetermined to become part of the elite in their respective societies. For those circumstances, the »elite university« made perfect sense; anything else would not have been consistent with the predominant socio-political circumstances.

The concept of a modern university goes back to 1809, when the Prussian government appointed one of its leading intellectuals, Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt, to be responsible for education. He did an excellent job, and his system has been taken over by most European countries, as it was most elaborate, systematic, and productive for achieving the objectives. This was the case two centuries ago, when the majority of the working people were illiterate and the emphasis in university education was on civilising the students by making them familiar with science in selected disciplines. So the objective of studying was to absorb knowledge with an emphasis on theory, while competences and skills needed to perform various practical jobs were considered nonacademic and left to professional schools.

Now, the situation is of course completely different: all working people are not only able to read and write but have finished at least 9 years of education, and about 1/3 of youngsters even graduated from university (implying that they were educated for a total of 16 years), and they are still not automatically considered to be the elite of their respective societies. Unless their university curricula have been adjusted to this new situation, present-day graduates are poorly prepared for performing any particular professional job. And for this challenge, people are blaming the respective universities for remaining conceptually within the framework developed two centuries ago by von Humbold.

However, just a short quote from von Humboldt's text indicates that he was much more modern than has generally been interpreted:

Just as primary instruction makes the teacher possible, so he renders himself dispensable through schooling at the secondary level. The university teacher is thus no longer a teacher, and the student is no longer a pupil. Instead, the student conducts research on his own behalf, and the professor supervises his research and supports him in it.

(Christopher Clark, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600–1947, p. 333)

This indicates that von Humboldt has been largely disinterpreted and that he was much more modern than understood at his time and later.

Isn't this approach quite different, indeed even contrary, to what is often still considered the Humboldt-type university? Generally, this is still considered the mental background of the concept of most present-day European universities, some in the USA (which von Humboldt has visited several times), and globally.

There is no need to emphasise that the main socio-economic characteristics of present-day societies are essentially different, as they have undergone over the last two centuries many fundamental changes. While von Humboldt was operating in the period of industrial society, we are now experiencing the achievements, as well as the challenges, of the digital age and the mature, innovative, knowledge society. Many of the work operations, which traditionally depended on responsible workers' reasoning and decisions, are now digitalized and increasingly operated by artificial intelligence, and the role of people has been focused primarily on guiding and controlling the computer-guided processes and decisions. Also, the structure of society has changed: it is no longer divided into two classes, and meritocracy has largely replaced the hereditary aristocracy.

These important changes are, however, not properly reflected in the very concept of present-day universities, which have not recognised even the changes experienced over the last 50–60 years, and still take the traditional approach to fulfilling their mission. To simplify a bit, they still see their mission in enreaching students with scientific knowledge—making them intellectuals and a kind of societal elite. Most academics, and consequently also the governments, therefore accept that teaching some practical competences and skills does not fit into the world of academia and should therefore not be part of university curricula.

What are the major causes for the slow process of adjustment of universities?

  1. A major contributing factor is the traditional career pattern of most university professors, who predominantly remain at the university from entering as students, distinguishing themselves, being invited to join the saff, and normally experiencing their entire professional career at their university, up to their retirement. Therefore, they remain encapsulated in this particular environment, depriving themselves of the opportunity to experience real life conditions. Being gradually recognised as a problem, in some countries they are now starting to take measures to prevent this deformation. For example, in Germany, this is now prevented by university rules for professors' re-elections, according to which the candidate for re-election has to provide evidence of at least some out-of-university work experience. This approach is very slowly gaining acceptance around the world, and therefore, reaching beyond the old-fashioned academic tradition will obviously take time.

  2. Indeed, a major change from teaching theory to preparing students for future work is needed, and that is in itself rather demanding. This is not only an issue at the university level. Many experts on pedagogy are claiming that, generally, in most countries, teachers are not sufficiently stimulating the creativity and critical thinking of their students. This is a problem throughout the whole educational system, being completely in contradiction with what is needed by people working in the 21st century in any sector. This goes particularly for workers, who are surrounded by and actively assisted by high technology, including artificial intelligence. The main function of most workers nowadays is to control and guide the machines and make decisions based on the options offered by the HITECH equipment. If not enabled to function in this fashion, even a highly knowledgeable and intellectually capable individual will not necessarily be particularly useful in a modern work environment. In these circumstances, besides knowledge, which determines the quality of workers, highly important is their attitude towards co-workers, their ability to communicate productively and flexibly, as well as their ability to develop critical thinking with the objective of finding solutions accepted by the respective teams. A couple of years ago, the British Employers Association conducted a survey, and about 70% of responding employers stated that they were not satisfied with the competence and skills of the graduates joining their companies. When commenting on this result, one needs to take into account that British universities tend to be more pragmatic than their colleagues on the continent, as well as that the UK government has categorised public universities into 3 categories by quality of their performance and differentiated levels of funding accordingly: only the best could receive more money, while the worst experienced serious cuts, and some even had to close their doors due to a lack of funding.

  3. A major factor in developing relevant curricula and maintaining their quality is the ability of universities to conduct good basic and applied research, which implies receiving an appropriate level of funding. The average official data for European countries' GERD (gross expenditures on R&D), where universities participate with about 1/4 to 1/3, is around 2.2% of GDP, while many member states remain below 1.5%. This demonstrates that neither public nor private funding is close to what would be required. As a logical consequence, for example, Slovenian universities have lost over the last 20 years about a quarter of their researchers due to insufficient funding.

  4. A bit of the theory-practice curriculum balance can be achieved when universities invite experienced practitioners to contribute some lectures and conduct seminars or workshops. This is an excellent opportunity for students to hear from distinguished people from companies and other practical environments about the problems experienced in real life and understand their origin, dimensions, and impact. It is important that this is well integrated into the curriculum and treated as a valuable component. Experience shows that these guest lectures are highly appreciated by students, which speaks for itself. Generally, we are all still not sufficiently aware of the vital importance of innovation for the progress of society and the development of the economy. Also, only some people in academia are fully aware of the dramatic transformation that has happened to the innovation process, particularly over the last half century. As Swedish Professor Charles Edquist, an internationally recognised authority on innovation, has demonstrated, innovation contributes at least 60% to GDP growth. Also, he explains that modern innovation is no longer following the traditional linear pattern (from basic to applied research, to development, and finally finishing at the market). Innovation has become much more complex, involving practically all segments of society, including the government. This is particularly important through direct funding as well as supporting domestic innovation activities through public procurement, which contributes on average to 13–20% of countries’ GDP and represents globally an impressive amount of 9.5 trillion dollars.

The most indisputable indicator of the innovation awareness and commitment of a country is its GDP share devoted by governments and businesses to R&D. It is not exaggerated to claim that those countries that give 3% or more definitely understand it, and those that give less than 2% do not—at least not sufficiently. Not surprisingly, according to the Global Innovation Index reports 2018–2022, in the first category, the following 20 countries appear at the top: Switzerland, Sweden, the USA, GB, the Netherlands, South Korea, Singapore, Germany, Finland, Denmark, China, France, Japan, Hong Kong, Canada, Israel, Austria, Estonia, Luxembourg, and Island.

In these countries, the above-listed conditions have been fully recognised, and, not surprisingly but consequently, they are convincingly leading the international innovation ranking lists. Generally, in all other countries, the awareness of the role of innovation is still far from sufficient.

We do believe that it is also the responsibility of universities to be more active on this front. But it is very important how this is done. Universities can easily give the impression that they are fighting to get more money for themselves, which is definitely not the most productive way and could easily be even counterproductive. By selecting the proper argumentation, universities have to demonstrate that they are pushing governments to finance innovation at an adequate level in order to increase the competitiveness of their respective economies, which is in everybody’s interest.

Globally, among the top 50 innovative countries, there are still 32 from Europe, but among the 11 countries that have improved most in their ranking during the 2018–2022 period, even 7 are outside Europe, and among the 7 countries that have worsened their ranking most, even 5 are from Europe. This clearly illustrates that universities have to do much more to prevent further deterioration of the European global competitive position.

Nic Mitchell has formulated the university-society relationship very clearly:

There are many ways for universities to improve their social impact, but the key is listening to communities, learning from them, understanding their needs, and working together to find solutions.

(University World News, Section Transformative Ledership)

If we are requesting that universities, including professors, be more active in modernising themselves and asking governments to provide sufficient funding, we equally need to ask the business sector to contribute as well. How can companies contribute to building an innovative economy and society?

There are at least four lines of action:

  1. By developing business-academia partnerships,
  2. By providing needed attention to R&D within the companies,
  3. By pushing governments to create and maintain a productive innovation ecosystem, and
  4. By helping the public understand the crucial importance of innovation for economic growth and general progress.

All these efforts can contribute significantly, as demonstrated by the achievements of the most innovative countries.

Last but not least, the media and the students themselves can also play an active part in the efforts to make universities leading actors in building a knowledge society. The media can contribute significantly to public awareness and indirectly increase the pressure on governments to create a good ecosystem and provide necessary financial resources.

Finally, students can also contribute by playing a more active role in the pedagogical process; they will benefit from it, and they will remind professors to act accordingly. They need to be aware that in 4–5 years, their future employers will expect from them not only to be knowledgeable and smart but also to have relevant competencies and skills characterising a modern, digital society increasingly benefiting from artificial intelligence.


1 Nic Mitchell Transformative Leadership Section at online Bulletin “University World News – The Global Window on Higher Education".
2 Christopher Clark, »Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947« 2006, Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusette.
3 Richard L. Hudson »AI talent is moving fast around the world, OECD database shows« Science/Business online Bulletin, 27 February 2020.