Universities in the Global Networks of the Future

Universities in the Global Networks of the Future

The Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture created, together with institutions of higher education and research, a Vision of Higher Education and Research, published in November 2017. Our Vision aims for the year 2030, but the need for a new way of thinking is imminent.

We are living in a world of globally interconnected value chains, and as a consequence, the nature of work is changing. Digitalisation, artificial intelligence and automation are transforming jobs, earning models, and businesses. At the same time, the aging population, mass migration and globalisation create new challenges, as do the free flow of information and capital from one country to another. In this whirlwind of rapid change, some jobs are disappearing, but at the same time new business models and news jobs are emerging. Rapid adopters of new technologies have a competitive advantage.

Winds of change

The systems of higher education everywhere in the world are facing the same winds of change. For universities, the forces driving the change are economic globalisation, cross-frontier competition on human capacities and skilled workers, and the digital disruption caused by new technologies. This calls for continuous reassessment and re-directing of higher education policy. In the last 15 years, the global volume of research and development activities has doubled. However, a relatively small amount of this growth has occurred in OECD countries: developing countries have invested heavily in education. As a consequence, both the quantity of students and their mobility have increased dramatically. In many countries there is a real hunger for education. University education is increasingly seen to be in a key asset in advancing productivity and to create new growth leading to new jobs. Universities are viewed as both predictors and promoters of societal and technological advancement.

For science and research, technological advances have made it possible to process huge masses of data, thus providing the opportunity to delve into more complex questions. However, in order to refine data to knowledge and to understand its meaning, creative and critical thinking are vital. The skills of thinking are born in communities of students and scholars who interact with each other and with the outside world. I believe that these values – critical thinking, creativity, community – continue to be the cornerstones of university-based learning and research in the future.

Access to science as open as possible, as closed as necessary

Democratic, liberal societies are increasingly underlining the need for open data, open results and open decision-making. On the other hand, a growing amount of commercial interests are based on having access to information that no one else has (intellectual property). In Finland, open science is the spearhead of national science policy, and we are operating under the slogan “As open as possible, as closed as necessary”. We are confident that this way of thinking will spread significantly in the coming years.

In the coming years, research and innovation will be increasingly seen as a process of co-creation in which both the producers and consumers of information take part. Calls for phenomenon-based, open and multidisciplinary research are getting stronger. It is getting clearer that the big challenges facing the humanity – such as climate change, the elimination of poverty, or the strengthening of democracy – can only be met through more knowledge, more research, and more international co-operation.

A digital future

The universities of the future will increasingly seek to take part in global networks. Science and research have always been truly global human endeavours, but new technology takes this change to a new level. In the networks of the future, scholars, teachers, and students exchange ideas and share information both on digital platforms and face to face. It is vital that business life and public administration take part in these exchanges. For higher education policy this means that university funding criteria must recognise and reward international networking and exchange as well as collaboration with businesses and industries.

The diverging, specialised needs of the working life emphasise the importance of learning to learn and of continuous life-long learning. This is true for all parts of the educational system. It is important to consider what fast-paced change in business and work means for the contents of higher education. As the “use by dates” of knowledge acquired today keep moving closer and closer, it is likely that our understanding of what high education and deep learning mean shall change. This change brings into focus the need for deep collaboration between autonomous universities and businesses to prevent a gap between the contents of academic study and the needs of the working life. It is equally important that university doors be revolving: new models of continuing higher education and life-long learning are needed to enable updating the capacities of degree-holders. This has implications on university funding as well.

We are currently working out what the consequences of these changes are for higher education policy in Finland. Some aspects are already quite clear: The future calls for more education, more capacity-building and more skills. The competition in a global economy can be fierce; therefore small countries – such as Finland – need to ensure the inclusiveness and equity of education. Only then can we make sure that no potential talent is lost.

Furthermore, a university career needs to be an attractive choice for young people. As a final point, we need to understand that in a world of rapid evolution and change, the legislation concerning higher education cannot be too restrictive: flexibility needs to be a built-in feature of universities.


Ms. Sanni Grahn-Laasonen is the Finnish Minister of Education, Vice-President of the National Coalition Party of Finland and is serving her second term as a Member of Parliament. She was born in Forssa (in Finland), in 1983. Her portfolio as Minister of Education covers the entire knowledge chain from early childhood education to top scientific research. Her tasks have also involved issues related to culture, sport, youth and religious affairs during the period 2015-2017. Grahn-Laasonen served as the Minister of the Environment between 2014 and 2015. Before becoming a Member of Parliament, she worked as a journalist, head of news services, Stockholm press correspondent and as a spokesperson to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. She has a Master’s degree in Social Sciences (University of Helsinki).


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