Reimagining higher education: Preparing the next generation for the global digital economy

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About the project

This knowledge synthesis project explores the ways in which higher education is failing to serve the needs of both students and employers. We highlight the urgent need for accessible, high-quality, affordable post-secondary education that prepares graduates to succeed in a highly complex, competitive and increasingly global, digital world. The skills and tools needed for sustained success in the workplace—problem-solving, critical and creative thinking, cooperation, tolerance and collaboration—align with those needed for effective citizenship.

We performed a literature search yielding 3,000-plus documents. After screening, we retained and analyzed 172 works to extract current and best practices for curriculum development; pedagogical frameworks; implementing the science of learning; and new methodologies and innovations. We identified nine fundamental barriers to and within traditional models of higher education. We then identified 12 reimagined colleges and universities applying new and innovative models. News reports, articles and interviews with stakeholders were reviewed to obtain more detailed information about each. We synthesized these results to recommend best practices for the future of higher education.

Key findings

Through our literature search we identified nine barriers to widely accessible, high-quality and affordable post-secondary education. These fell into two broad categories:

  1. Reasons students do not receive university degrees
    • unequal financial access
    • unequal geographic accessibility
    • lack of admissions transparency
    • attrition and inequities in retention
    • student health and well-being
    • difficulties transforming higher education in colonial contexts
  2. Reasons students are unprepared for the real world after graduation
    • weak utilization of technology for pedagogical improvements
    • outmoded teaching methods and content
    • lack of career-relevant skills

We also identified 12 innovative universities and colleges addressing these barriers: University of Technology Sydney; Minerva University; First Nations University; Paul Quinn College; College of the Atlantic; Hampshire College; Antioch College; Bryn Mawr College; Quest University; and Alverno College.

Based on our review of these schools, 68 academic papers and 104 other documents, we recommend nine best practices. Universities and colleges must:

  • reduce costs and/or offer paid work opportunities
  • offer parallel in-person, online and hybrid programs with flexible scheduling options
  • use standardized, transparent and equitable admissions processes
  • put programs in place to help first year students succeed
  • take a proactive approach to mental health and wellness
  • recruit more Indigenous faculty, staff and students, incorporate accurate Indigenous content, and strengthen relationships with Indigenous communities
  • use technological innovation to support pedagogical innovation
  • stay up to date on the newest research and innovations across disciplines and rely on the science of learning
  • prepare students for life after graduation through supportive relationships, deep learning and experiential opportunities

Policy implications

  • Inequities in access and support. The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare inequities, highlighting existing and creating additional hardships for economically disadvantaged and traditionally underrepresented students. When opening more campuses to host more students is not an option, improving Internet infrastructure is essential to accommodate geographically remote students. An equitable education also requires that schools foster well-being to ensure every student is in the same position to succeed.
  • Pedagogical innovation. Institutions must fundamentally understand the science of learning and incorporate it into their curricula. Each course should have specific activities and extracurriculars that align with its goals, and curriculum developers and educators must be on the same page regarding these goals and student growth. Institutions must also follow industry trends and adapt their curriculum to ensure the employability of their graduates.
  • Technological innovation. With the changing nature and rapid acceleration of knowledge, educators must stay up to date on the newest technological innovations and exciting areas of research to foster student interest and spark curiosity. As new technologies emerge, we need to consider if they can add benefits to our instructional methods; the presence of technological infrastructure alone is meaningless when used without the science of learning techniques.

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Daniel J. Levitin, James McGill Professor Emeritus, Department of Psychology, McGill University:

The views expressed in this evidence brief are those of the authors and not those of SSHRC, the Future Skills Centre or the Government of Canada.

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