The development of a vision helps us to define the final point we want to reach; what we want to become and attain within the timeframe. The vision aims to inspire horizons of transformation and should enable us, by observation, to outline institutional strategies and objectives, as well as the action plans to achieve them.
The GUNi World Report, entitled New Visions for Higher Education Institutions towards 2030, aims to define recommendations for universities worldwide within this timeframe. Accordingly, the main focus is on institutions, without losing sight of their embeddedness in higher education systems. Higher education institutions (HEIs) are called on to rethink their social function and strategies in the coming years in the context of major technological, economic, social and cultural transformation. Therefore, the GUNi World Report focuses on university institutions and their capacity for transformation and innovation in this change of era and within the timeframe of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda.
This vision is drawn from GUNi’s fundamental values and mission and our desire to promote the transformation of higher education towards greater public service, relevance, social responsibility and innovation. Likewise, at GUNi we promote the exchange of resources and experiences and seek to encourage group reflections and the joint production of knowledge for change. The vision being presented is also therefore drawn from the contributions and views of GUNi’s members.
Moving beyond words, this vision creates a space for active transformation which, together with the report as a whole, will constitute the stepping stone for a wider and more ambitious project entitled “GUNi International Call for Action (2022-2025): Rethinking HEIs for Sustainable and Inclusive Societies”.
Our starting point is to consider higher education and knowledge as public goods which must be preserved and promoted by governments and public institutions to enhance progress, well-being and competitiveness. This means opening up higher education, knowledge and research to society (both public and private institutions), and establishing policies for equal opportunities, equity and access to higher education.
Given the trend in recent decades for a certain degree of standardisation of higher education institutions (for example, through indicators, standards and rankings that prioritise research and the impact of scientific publications over teaching and learning), the report supports the richness of a plurality of models. There is no ideal, single model of university to which we should aspire. Instead, there are a range of models which are equally valid and relevant. We advocate the promotion of institutional plurality as a source of richness and a necessary response to diverse social contexts and needs. What makes university institutions equal is the desire to achieve quality in service to society.
We know that knowledge, talent and scientific research have become key factors in progress and well-being. Although universities have lost the monopoly on knowledge (which is increasingly widespread), they are now key institutions in the knowledge society. Making a commitment through public policies to construct innovative universities is vital if we want to build societies and economies that are resilient, sustainable and progressive. Universities could become beacons for society and leading institutions. They could serve as a space for testing and innovation. They could become centres for discussion and co-creation, taking advantage of their neutrality and prestige. They could be catalysts to ask the right questions and establish ways of working with other social players to find potential solutions.
In this context, it is essential to reflect on the added value provided by HEIs, focussing on the guidance and support provided during the training process, the sense of community and network, the transmission of frameworks and learning pathways at different times of life, interdisciplinarity and encouragement of the capacity for discernment, all of which contribute to individual and social transformation.
The complexity of social problems today, at local and global level, requires expert and scientific knowledge to introduce the most suitable public policies. Dialogue between politicians, public management and academia should be continuous and promote social advances and progress. A good example of this can be found in the crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the extraordinary effort made by universities and research centres and their respective governments worldwide to create and share knowledge in record time.
As mentioned above, the world is facing enormous political and social challenges; these include poverty, inequality, mass migration, xenophobia, popularism, the climate emergency, technological and scientific revolution, and the required environmental, social and economic sustainability. We believe that universities, in this context, must position themselves socially with all the rigour that should define them, and all the conviction of institutions working for the common good and the progress, peace and well-being of humanity. We therefore call for universities that are committed and open, not closed in on themselves and self-satisfied.
This social responsibility must be translated into a clear institutional commitment:
The social responsibility of universities has an excellent framework in the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Indeed, the 2030 Agenda establishes the main challenges and commitments for humanity and enables the design of a tool to reflect universities’ institutional policies.
The Covid-19 crisis, with all of its severe consequences for humans and health, has also caused an immense social crisis. In education, it has led to an increase in inequality and once again revealed the power of the work done in schools, institutions and university faculties to fight against inequality and promote social mobility and socialisation. In addition, as we know, the pandemic has acted as a great accelerator in the rethinking of education in the digital era and has shown the advantages (and limitations) of the intensive use of communication and digital technologies for education throughout life.
Reconsidering university institutions in this change of era is no simple task. We must break down the inertia and incrementalism preventing substantial change in institutions. Universities must combine a commitment to change and innovation with the investment of considerable effort and resources to transform institutional policies.
To achieve this, strong institutional leadership is needed. This should be based on management for organisational change that is flexible and innovative, with long-term institutional strategies that promote and amplify all the expertise and creativity of university professionals. This means constant investment in institutions’ human capital and the professional development of teams with a strategic vision. Universities must work to expand management, academic and administrative teams, organise themselves more autonomously through missions and projects, and focus on being organisations that learn, adapt and unlearn.
Considering the potential of institutions and focusing on their agency, we must not lose sight of the fact that they are part of higher education systems which, in terms of structure, policy, politics, finance, quality standards, governance and laws, define their possibilities and delimit change. However, it is a matter of transforming and accommodating institutions and the system at the same time in order to meet the challenges that lie ahead.
The strategic capacity of universities must be based on broad institutional autonomy and, at the same time, full and exacting reporting to public authorities and society. In many countries, government actions can be observed that limit or question the autonomous capacity of universities. Some governments burden universities with procedures and controls that have no added value, or directly establish programmes and public policies that cast doubt on this autonomy. It must be asserted that universities need to be autonomous in order to respond appropriately to social needs and demands, as well as being institutions that can guide society and remain at the forefront of thought and knowledge.
However, institutional autonomy does not in any way mean turning their back on society. In fact the opposite is true. We are committed to universities that are highly porous, allowing them to collaborate with other public institutions, companies, civil society organisations, etc. At local and regional level, universities must make the quintuple helix a reality. In the international arena, they must contribute to partnerships, networks and missions. At the same time, students must be at the heart of universities’ raison d’être.
In addition, we believe that institutions must focus on contemporary social problems. They should provide interdisciplinary approaches to the complex challenges of society. This growing complexity requires comprehensive responses constructed from the shared depth of each academic discipline rather than through incomplete visions.
As we have stated on other occasions, we do not believe that universities face the dilemma (as many have tried to demonstrate) of choosing between competitiveness and innovation on the one hand, and cooperation and social commitment on the other. We consider that it is possible to develop institutions that are committed to being innovative and competitive, while at the same time being socially responsible and adopting close, frank formulae for cooperation with other universities and organisations.
Along these lines, we believe that we must opt for an intelligent balance between competition and cooperation at the heart of university systems and at global level. Competition often leads to improvement and added value. It enables the consolidation of institutions that are attentive to innovation and constant improvement. However, we must also opt for cooperative mechanisms between universities and higher education systems, through agreements within the system and the development of networks or partnerships that can multiply players’ actions.
Beyond what has been stated already, our vision is based on seven main areas of transformation. All of them are considered critical in the rethinking of university institutions and focusing them on the 2030 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals. The areas are:
Sustainability can no longer be a general concept or a simple coat of varnish to be applied at the current time. Instead, sustainability must form a central part of the mission of higher education institutions, through radicalism and the generation of strategic programmes and initiatives. Universities must become driving forces behind the spread of sustainability while at the same time taking on a great responsibility for it.
We must make a commitment to including sustainability in a way that cuts across all aspects of higher education and avoids an isolated conception of sustainability as a subject or practice to be incorporated. Universities’ contribution ranges from training and teaching to scientific research and knowledge transfer, promoting a new vision of their relationship with the world and the environment to transform HEIs’ operation, management, training and research. Universities’ responsibility also extends to agreements and commitments with other social, economic and cultural agents to jointly create transitions to sustainability.
We adopt a broad definition of sustainability that encompasses environmental, social and economic factors. In the educational field, social sustainability is closely related to universalisation of the right to education, the extension of training throughout life for everyone, gender equality, and direct support for minority and marginalised groups. In education, economic sustainability defines knowledge and education as common goods which must be preserved and promoted, with equal opportunities and policies for equity and redistribution.
Education and universities should be seen as real drivers for change and the sustainable transformation of our societies at local and global level. Globally, they can lead international collaborative programmes and projects that could address any of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. At local/regional level, they can promote sustainability by educating through example or collaborating on sustainable development initiatives in the territory, society and the economy.
Digitalisation entails a great social, economic and cultural transformation that directly affects the foundations of higher education and university institutions. Digitalisation and widespread information (and disinformation) make possible it to reconsider the education function from top to bottom: the role of teachers, educational spaces and timetables, teaching methods and curriculum organisation. Digitalisation has also led to the emergence of many private suppliers in the educational field, who, in many cases, treat training as a highly profitable source of business with high demand in many countries. As we well know, the Covid-19 pandemic suddenly accelerated digitalisation at all stages of education, with little planning and very uneven results.
We consider digitalisation to be a powerful instrument for universal, inclusive and efficient education, constructing digital ecosystems for learning. In this area, we advocate blended university training models which at all times seek the potential of digital technologies at the service of learning and the richness and benefits of face-to-face on-campus training and added-value interactions.
Once again, we do not believe in just one model of university institution, but rather the introduction of a great diversity based on a range of educational models and the use of digitalisation, including high-quality universities that are completely online. Digitalisation breaks down the classroom walls and it is inevitable that all HEIs will eventually end up working with digital technologies to design and teach courses online.
Digital technology can also maintain and increase social inequalities and exclusions, as the experience of the pandemic has revealed, especially in the field of education. Advances in technology are associated with the many dimensions of the digital divide, including physical and economical access to technology, resources and connections on equal terms and of the same good quality, cognitive abilities to assimilate, understand and use the whole potential of technologies, social access in terms of freedom of use, equal opportunities and lack of bias in information, free circulation of knowledge and protection with regard to risks and security concerns.
Given the multiple dimensions of the digital divide, we are committed to the extensive digital training of citizens and the construction of good learning models that promote flexibility and adapt to different types of students and needs. At the same time, we call for investments and public policies focused on reducing divides. We must continue to work to reduce gaps through public funding of universities, regulations to guarantee quality education on physical campuses and in online studies, and a wide range of grants and financial aid for students. Special mention must be made of the vital investment in continuous training of academic staff on the use and implementation of digital technologies and adaptation to new trends that could be brought about by technological advances in teaching and research.
Digitalisation should also enable us to make education more personalised, by providing opportunities for different educational models and learning strategies to promote learning self-management. Similarly, now is the ideal time to take advantage of the potential of digitalisation to bring about educational revolution and knowledge transformation through digital tools.
The job market is in the midst of a transformation, with radical changes that are affecting the classical conceptions of the industrial era. As higher education institutions are responsible for training qualified professionals, they must lead and respond to these challenges appropriately.
Universities should put teaching and training at the heart of their mission. They must be allocated sufficient resources to nurture future professionals and citizens and meet the training needs and demands of the current workforce in the field of lifelong learning. This clearly means putting students at the centre of universities’ raison d’être. Students should be supported in their development and empowered in this context of a complex, dynamic job market. To achieve this, there are five key, complementary aspects that must be specifically worked on. They are as follows:
Training in competences and deep knowledge, but also in human and social skills: adaptability, resilience, critical spirit, analytical capacity, creativity, innovation, social commitment, global citizenship, etc.
Full acceptance of the paradigm of training throughout life. This means introducing a real university for all ages and all stages in higher and permanent education: skilling, reskilling, upskilling, micro-credentials and professional retraining.
Interdisciplinary training with a focus on current and future economic, social, cultural and technological problems and challenges.
The widespread introduction of practical and applied training with all its related opportunities, in close collaboration with other players and including dual training, work placements, service learning, etc.
The availability of international training for all students through international mobility programmes, co-creation programmes, stays and exchanges, and the promotion of new models of internationalisation at home for all students.
This should be achieved while at all times promoting equity, equal opportunities and the participation of vulnerable groups and minorities in higher education. In addition, extensive student support programmes are required, including grants, salary grants and social aid. These challenges and key aspects must be worked on in collaboration with economic and social agents, governments, citizens and the business sector in order to obtain broad consensus and solid, lasting value propositions.
Citizens: promoting humanist values and profiles in a changing world
Universities have the mission to train free, critical citizens who are socially and globally committed. In recent decades, this function has been overlooked in favour of technical training for professional qualifications and entry into the job market. We advocate comprehensive training that goes beyond this division between training for citizenship and training for professional qualifications. Higher education institutions in today’s complex, dynamic world must regain the values of free, critical, committed citizenship. They should defend these values with determination and apply them in all their fields of activity: training, scientific research, knowledge transfer, innovation, social commitment and internal management.
This institutional commitment should strengthen democracy and the values of human rights, dignity, equality, coexistence, divergence and disagreement, as well as respect for minorities. In accordance with their universalist aim, universities must help to construct a universal ethic which is shared by all humankind. HEIs’ social responsibility includes the construction of peace and freedom, training in peaceful conflict resolution and boosting of community-based research, listening to social players not only for productivity improvement, but also to provide training in world citizenship and peace management. They must do this by moving away from centralism and neocolonialism, respecting and promoting cultural and linguistic traditions from all places and treating them as global cultural heritage that must be preserved.
Training in values and humanist profiles should be extended throughout institutions and included in courses on science and technology. In a highly technical world with challenges such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the use and management of big data, the environment, and commercial and economic globalisation, humanist values must permeate all syllabuses for the comprehensive training of students. New paradigms are needed, such as digital humanities and environmental humanism. Likewise, these values must accompany scientific research activity at all times, in order to bring about a better, more habitable world and establish ethical and human frameworks for scientific, social, cultural and technological development.
The fight for free, critical citizenship is also a fight against disinformation and in favour of knowledge democracy. In this situation, collective decision-making is based on evidence and scientific rigour. At the same time, a participatory democracy that works for the common good is promoted at all times.
Knowledge is becoming a critical factor for the progress, well-being and competitiveness of societies. In what is known as the knowledge society, science, technology and talent are key factors for building progressive societies. In fact, some of the disputes between countries at international level are aimed at achieving a competitive advantage in technological and scientific capacity in various fields and all kinds of applications.
Of course, universities play a key role in society and knowledge democracy. However, they have lost their monopoly on knowledge and therefore need to forge partnerships and collaborations with other agents: public institutions, companies and organised civil society. We must construct open universities which at all time facilitate these collaborations with other agents and focus on the advance of culture, science and knowledge, as well as its social and economic application.
We are committed to responsible research and innovation; research that is carried out with and for society. We are committed to social participation in scientific developments and scientific dissemination and communication as tools to bring these developments closer to all citizens. We advocate the promotion of science, knowledge and innovation that applies not only to natural and technical sciences but also includes social sciences and humanities. In this context, we promote open science as a universal common good that must be jointly constructed and shared.
We want to develop entrepreneurial universities at the service of society that strengthen entrepreneurial capital through their leadership, knowledge and research and training activities. Universities should foster cross-disciplinarity and have a cross-cutting vision of social problems beyond the classical academic disciplines. They must promote complex thought and have a global, inclusive vision.
We aspire to a broad, multidimensional conceptualisation of university quality that considers questions such as equality, inclusion, autonomy, critical capacity and creativity, all of which are essential to the public, scientific and cultural value of higher education institutions. In this regard, we propose a shift from individualist research models to cooperative transformation-oriented approaches. In addition, new metrics should be developed for assessing the academic and scientific activity of teaching staff that value the social impact of scientific research, its dissemination and eventual application.
In recent years, internationalisation has become one of the main focuses of university strategy to gain an international position and compete in the league of top universities. The knowledge and shared information society has led higher education institutions to become consolidated as nodes of multilevel networks that create and disseminate high-quality knowledge organised into alliances and other collaborative models. At the same time, globalisation and advances in international transport have made student and academic mobility a key factor in the international standing of institutions and the circulation of knowledge.
However, with the Covid-19 crisis, internationalisation activities suddenly had their modus operandi curtailed to a certain extent, with almost non-existent academic mobility in the last two years. This has increased the importance of strengthening new models of internationalisation. These models were already in existence, in some cases for over thirty years. Examples include internationalisation at home and internationalisation of the curriculum. These models are spreading to new contexts and have gained more relevance in this decade.
New forms of internationalisation, along with the possibilities offered by technology, have increased the capacity of universities in their mission to train critical citizens with global competencies and knowledge, and the ability to make decisions that have a local, national and global impact. These new forms mean that the multicultural dimension has been incorporated into the construction of the global knowledge, vision and management of higher education institutions. In addition, they reinforce universities’ mission to be inclusive and fairer, and to guarantee access with equal opportunities.
Digitalisation has provided new approaches to international collaboration and cooperation, through methods such as virtual exchange, collaborative online international learning (COIL) programmes, co-creation, co-teaching, blended mobility and virtual classrooms. Combined learning enables the diversification of internationalisation and encourages universities to cooperate internationally by sharing tools and experiences.
In a framework of collaboration, university partnerships, international associations and programmes to promote university cooperation could be the future of co-creation, cooperation and promotion of a space to share good practices and foster transnational work. In the international arena, this approach serves to promote the mutual recognition of qualifications and training, strengthen the participation of students, teaching staff and the entire university community, and promote knowledge transfer.
Internationalisation should not reinforce a global market of producers and consumers of knowledge and training, but boost international cooperation for advancement through horizontal logic and reciprocity. In this sense, it is generally claimed that there is a need for greater interregional and South-South cooperation that goes straight to the needs, specificities and potential of each territory. Despite the difficulties of creating a global vision, this is needed if we are to then move into details at other levels. The global internationalisation framework must be revisited in the different contexts of the global north and global south, taking a regional issues-based approach while also considering the inner diversities of the regions.
At the same time, we cannot talk about the future of internationalisation without taking into account present and future demographic growth, which will shift the focus and volume of students and institutions to new leading regions.
In short, future internationalisation must find a balance between the more competitive approach and the cooperative dimension that is associated with community responsibility. In this respect, the trends for internationalisation of higher education institutions must evolve and be transformed in parallel with the main social challenges.
Higher education institutions are singular organisations with centuries of history. They are dedicated to knowledge creation and transmission and are key agents in the progress, well-being and competitiveness of societies and countries. Universities have often been described as inverted pyramids, as their main component, with the greatest capacity for action, are their professionals: teaching and research staff, administrative and management personnel.
Any university institution (whatever its profile, focus and characteristics) must therefore make a clear commitment to its professionals by providing training, retaining talent and fostering professional development. For the transformation of universities, it is vital to ask which profiles of teaching and research staff and administrative and management staff should be encouraged. They must enable us to build resilient, innovative and socially committed institutions.
In particular, we should mention the promotion of gender equality and the acquisition, retention and promotion of female talent. We must break the glass ceiling that still affects teachers and researchers in particular. Along these lines, we should implement specific policies and incentives to overcome discrimination and contribute to the full professional development of young girls and women in universities. This also means promoting women to the management and academic positions at the heart of universities.
We believe that we must overcome the existing barriers between teaching and research staff and management staff. Increased qualification of administrative staff should enable full participation in universities’ strategic tasks, including critical areas such as digitalisation, sustainability, internationalisation, laboratories and infrastructure, teaching and research management, and even participation in direct aspects of teaching, research and innovation. In addition, we are committed to the utmost professionalisation of management teams. The availability of professional, highly qualified management and academic teams is an essential factor in the strengthening of institutions and making them more efficient with a greater social impact.
In the organisational area, we demand full university autonomy that is real and effective. It must always be accompanied by transparent reporting to institutions and society and, at the same time, should be enforced by specific regulation and financial support for HEIs. If the goal is to move forwards and take action, it is important to draw up strategies on where and how universities can be empowered and what their agency is, taking into account their specific location within policy, the politics of national and international systems, and quality assurance standards and governance. Autonomy is therefore related to accountability and quality, and is also linked to the construction of knowledge and HEIs’ agency for innovation and transformation. Institutional autonomy is the way to construct more flexible, innovative organisations and avoid unnecessary bureaucracy that does not generate added value.
We are unquestionably committed to participation within the university community in the governance of higher education institutions, which must coexist alongside professional, flexible and efficient management. Decision-making must be democratic and participative and not paralysing. It should coexist alongside the need for flexibility and professionalisation in university administration and management. Finally, we consider that social participation in university governance should be promoted. Bridges must be built for collaboration in training, research, transfer and innovation. Singular and strategic projects for the country must be promoted with institutional, business and social players.
The vision defined here helps us to set horizons of transformation for higher education institutions. As noted, the vision aims to inspire the construction of institutional strategies, objectives and action plans to achieve the envisioned horizons.
In this sense, GUNi will continue to generate reflection and knowledge, one of its core missions, by enriching the content of the new Higher Education in the World Report. This report is a living document, not only developed in printed and downloadable format, but also launched on a live webpage where new contributions will be added in the form of papers, videos, interviews and podcasts. The overall aim is to contribute over the period 2022-2025 by giving voice and bearing witness to new ideas, contributions and actions relating to higher education institutions and systems as they move in the direction of the 2030 Agenda, along the lines marked out by the GUNi vision.
Moving beyond words, the vision creates a space for active transformation which, together with the report as a whole, will constitute the stepping stone for a wider and more ambitious project entitled “GUNi International Call for Action (2022-2025): Rethinking HEIs for Sustainable and Inclusive Societies”. This project will be one of GUNi’s key strategic lines of action for 2022-2025 and will seek to encourage and help HEIs around the world to deploy the actions and changes that are needed to adapt and become more relevant, inclusive, effective, innovative and socially responsible. The overarching aim is for the International Call for Action and the special issue website to become a key open space for contributions to the transformation of HEIs around the world.
 In this text, the concepts of higher education institutions and universities are used interchangeably.