Video Credit: TBD Media

While many of the world’s businesses and institutions have undergone major structural changes thanks to the influence of digital upstarts, we often look to universities as a source of knowledge and stability in a changing world. But assumptions about how a university should meet the needs of students and employers is changing.

Saudi Electronic University was founded in 2011 with an emphasis from the beginning on blended learning: face to face and online learning sit side by side to support learners in their goals. Dr Monsour Albarrak, Dean, College of Administrative and Financial Sciences at Saudi Electronic University says:

“The most joyful and proudest moments are watching our students shift careers and they get promotion upon completion of their degree. And this is what I call the SEU effect.”

While learners may see their education as an important part of achieving their personal goals, universities have a wider role to play in society. Professor Lilac Alsafadi, President at Saudi Electronic University says that universities have two important roles:

“The first is responding to emerging, socioeconomic and cultural needs. And the second is driving socioeconomic changes. As part of their first role, universities need to prepare young people for the current and future workforce and to create their own jobs in the future through having the right models of education in place. And as a driver of change, universities are the bedrock of the R&D ecosystem. They influence industry by creative and innovative ideas that turn into long term impact. They're also agents of societal innovation, being thought leaders and platforms to drive discussions on critical topics of importance to the society.”

One such critical topic could be how universities themselves are adapting to the needs of students. Professor Alsafadi says that “business as usual” is no longer an option for universities:

“Universities need to redefine themselves, their purpose, role, niche and value proposition, and make a strategic choice about who to serve, why to serve and what to serve, and then work backward on redesigning their business operating and learning model.”

Professor Alsafadi believes that the future is for the economic and workforce demand for skills should be met by qualifications made up of a stack of courses from specialized institutes, meaning an end to bachelor degrees issued by a single Institute. She adds:

“Many aspects of learning should be delivered in parallel to employment, to narrow the market education gap in modules that are shorter and stackable to meet the dynamic market changes. Universities need to personalize learning, offering students the ability to study what they want and how they want, while universities focus more on delivering active and effective support and guidance to align the learners with their future aspirations.”

Dr Albarrak says that there is further emphasis on the wider attributes that make a graduate truly valuable; as well as core knowledge and technical skills, it is seens as crucial to impart the values of critical thinking, personal responsibility, teamwork, ethics and community engagement. These, he says, come from the top down:

“There is integrity, humility, and authenticity. While great leaders inspire and motivate others to act, they must do so in a manner that creates alignment and engagement throughout the whole organization. Successful colleges and universities continually display a genuine interest in the success of their students. Leaders of SEU today have a proven record of removing barriers, providing resources necessary to ensure access to the education and academic success for all of our students.”

Abdul Aziz Alkhmazi is one such student, holding a Bachelor’s Degree in information technology and a Master’s Degree in data science. He singles out the hybrid learning environment as particularly important: “When the COVID 19 pandemic started, my learning at SEU was not affected. SEU smoothly shifted from face to face to online classes by using the Blackboard platform. I think that the SEU education system leads the way in the future of higher education. Technology forces us to change, even if we don't want to and this is a good, not a bad thing. SEU uses technology perfectly.”

Professor Lilac Alsafadi says that the economy of the 2030s will be defined by change, complexity and speed. The role and purpose of higher education, she argues, must undergo a revolution: "SEU will become a global university utilizing emerging technologies and learning models to offer personalized student-centric, immersive and widely accessible bionic learning. SEU will reconceptualize flexibility and personalization of learning, available on demand from anywhere at any time and offering learners an international learning experience at home.”