How certain European universities are leading the way in innovation

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What role do universities play in a contemporary world?

Higher education institutes have long been known as hubs of knowledge of production and a means of gaining a respected qualification. But today, universities play a much bigger and more important role: preparing students for diverse roles in their future, whether it’s academic or professional.

Stakeholders and partners have growing concerns over whether universities are developing students with the skills and competencies needed to thrive in the digital era.

Students want more bang for their buck and expect to graduate well-prepared to take on their respective disciplines and succeed in a competitive world.

Therefore universities, and even schools, are being urged to become ‘innovators’ – a popular buzzword in the education landscape – searching for new ways to engage and develop student minds. But what does it really mean and what are the best ways to do it?

A new report released by the European University Association (EUA) used case studies of European universities as examples innovative methods that address these pertinent concerns.

Here are some of the things highlighted in the report, and how universities have successfully implemented these innovative practices to develop students who can fulfil the needs of current and future industries.

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Integrating interdisciplinary approaches

Many universities are moving towards interdisciplinary methods of teaching. In the real world, different fields often overlap and intertwine, so sticking to just one discipline is fast-becoming an outdated learning form.

According to the report, “At all universities visited in this study, academic leaders and innovators emphasised the importance of interdisciplinary approaches to defining and solving knowledge problems. They insisted on the necessity of integrating interdisciplinary approaches into teaching curricula and methods.”

Students are more receptive to these flexible forms of curricula, but more traditional universities may struggle to adopt these interdisciplinary learning approaches.

The report notes that, “In Paris, the flexible options of the new curricula at Sorbonne had attracted more and highly motivated students. In Munich, the Technical University of Munich (TUM) had integrated social science and humanities modules into their engineering curricula, in addition to promoting digital and entrepreneurial skills across all disciplines.”

Project-based learning 

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Project-based learning builds teamwork skills that are relevant to the real world. Source: Shutterstock

It’s well-known that there will be disruptive social, technological and economic challenges in the future as we move towards a more advanced era.

Students must be adequately prepared to deal with these disruptions and find ways to adapt.

At several institutions highlighted in the report, “fostering innovation in the twenty-first century is associated with the idea of helping students or young researchers become “game changers”: innovators who are able to fundamentally rethink problems and find or adapt to disruptive innovations.”

One way to tackle this is to offer more project-based learning. The report stated that “every university in the study mentioned placed an increased emphasis on project-based learning as a key ingredient of teaching methodologies and curricula.”

In particular, they stressed the importance of linking theoretical learning with the solution to real-life problems presented by companies in the region.

“These problems are solved by students from different subjects in interdisciplinary teams, sometimes mentored by academics as well as by external professionals. But even in a more purely academic environment, project-based learning is experienced as an important fundament for enabling students to become future innovators.”

For example, at the University of Warsaw, the Faculty of Physics organises challenge projects to unleash creative potential and promote independent problem-solving skills in students.

As part of the project, students are required to come up with a problem and find the means to solve the problems themselves, with support from a tutor.

“Feedback shows that, for students, it is very important to feel that they are the actors of the creative process. Furthermore, they are supposed to learn how to work and solve a problem in a team, a vital skill for academic as well as other professional careers in all knowledge-intensive sectors.”

No matter what they are studying, there is the need to develop skills like critical thinking that help them face potential difficulties in the future.

According to the report, “Eight out of nine universities mentioned special challenge projects or competitions in which students organised themselves in inter-disciplinary teams in order to solve a particular real-life problem with a deadline.”

All universities demonstrated concerted efforts to promote an entrepreneurial mindset through extra modules, special projects or mentoring.

While entrepreneurship skills used to be reserved for business studets, they’re becoming more and more integral to other fields, too.

As stated in the report, “The ideas of self-organisation, collaboration in teams, and project-based learning and ownership of the learning process were regarded as central to these learning formats. They were the key to acceptance of these formats among students and their future success as innovators.”

For example, Aalto University in Finland provides every student and staff member with experiences of entrepreneurial thinking and actions.

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The report explained, “The university believes in not too much intervention, but in ensuring a multidisciplinary, encouraging environment where students can meet colleagues from other disciplines through curricular or student initiatives.

“The teaching involves a lot of team-work and mutual learning, emphasising real-life problem-solving through projects for companies, internships, or by integrating real-life cases and lectures by corporate partners into curricula.”

One such initiative is the internationally-renowned Design Factory, which combines a student entrepreneurship research programme with a university-business co-creation platform.

Aalto University’s approach is to address “the challenge of educating students for an unknown future, to solve ever more complex, so-called wicked problems. In addition to learning competences in specific fields, there is an increasing need to provide learning experiences that better prepare graduates for co-creation.

“The more they understand and respect experts from other fields, and are trained to work with open-ended problems, the better they meet the expectations for working life. With the right attitudes — curiosity, hunger for learning, entrepreneurship — the graduates will adapt to the future, and they will have a strong impact on making the future.”

Universities can learn from these great examples of innovation, all of which better prepare graduates for future success.

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