Interview on the Future of Universities: The Student’s Point of View
19 December 2023 /
In a conversation with Guillermo Tosca Díaz, Research Manager at ThinkYoung, we discuss the future of higher education in Europe. Based on a report, which was the result of a collaboration between ThinkYoung and SEK Education Group, taking into account the perspectives of 3,500 young people, this interview looks at the priorities of today’s students and the future challenges for European higher education.
Eyes on Europe (EoE): Good afternoon, Guillermo! It is fantastic to discuss the topic of higher education with you. Your joint study between the SEK Group and ThinkYoung on this topic is quite significant. Could you start by telling us what are the main findings of the research?
Guillermo (G): Absolutely. The study aimed to understand the perspectives of young Europeans regarding the future of higher education. We engaged with both university graduates and current students. We uncovered numerous findings, many of which we presented at a seminar conference held at the European Parliament and are detailed in our report. One striking discovery was that 70% of students prioritised the development of critical thinking skills, advocating for universities to emphasise this more. This emphasis was more evident in Southern European countries such as Italy and Spain, and less so in Germany and the Netherlands or other Northern countries. We speculate this difference might be due to different educational traditions; for instance, there is a stronger emphasis on reasoning and critical analysis in high schools in Germany and the Netherlands. This refers to the ability to discern between true and false information, an important and not obvious skill for the students surveyed.
This observation is relevant in today’s information-driven age, where access to information is abundant. However, the real importance lies not in the availability of information, but in the ability to distinguish well-argued, fact-based information from unfounded or false data.
EoE: Your report highlights various priorities expressed by students. Among these, the students indicated a substantial interest in health, both mental and physical. How do you think universities can enhance mental and physical health?
G: Our main focus was to understand the perspectives of young people rather than proposing specific solutions to address these concerns. We aimed to shed light on their needs and present their voices to policymakers. However, mental and physical health emerged as significant priorities. 75% of students believe higher education institutions must prioritise mental and physical health. This implies providing more accessible mental health services and ensuring students are aware of and have easy access to these resources. Often, these services are limited and not widely known.
Moreover, reducing the stigma associated with seeking help for mental health issues is essential. While there has been progress in reducing this stigma over the years, there is still work to be done to normalise seeking professional assistance as a tool for everyone. While friends and family provide support, professionals offer specialised help that friends or family members cannot provide. It is a supportive tool that should be accessible to all.
EoE: One interesting finding was the higher satisfaction of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) students regarding their readiness after graduation compared to other students. Do we know the reasons behind this trend?
G: Sure, this is somewhat speculative, as we have not delved deeply into explaining this aspect. However, we do offer some possible explanations in our report.
From the data, it is evident that those who have pursued STEM studies feel more adequately prepared by their university for the future. However, this does not necessarily reflect the university itself, but rather the nature of the studies individuals are pursuing. Having a STEM background tends to offer greater professional opportunities in the job market. This does not mean other academic backgrounds lack opportunities, but statistically, STEM graduates often find more employment prospects. Yet, it is important to note that this does not imply that universities are not adequately preparing non-STEM students.
EoE: Moving on to a more intriguing area, the use of artificial intelligence (AI). There have been huge developments in AI recently, and your report also touched on this topic. As a student, I have noticed that AI is generally viewed negatively and is often restricted in universities, but I think it is unrealistic to ignore its potential and its impact on students. Should universities embrace AI?
G: Our report certainly looked at this issue. There is a significant number of universities that recognise AI as a useful tool. Many influential institutions are accepting the importance of integrating artificial intelligence into education and recognising its permanence. Ethical application is key, rather than complete bans, also because bans can often be circumvented. Interestingly, many prestigious journals are now open to accepting work involving AI, setting a trend in the field. They often have policies that require authors to disclose the use of AI as a tool when submitting their work.
In academia, there is certainly more rigidity due to the peer-review process and discussions about plagiarism: Is AI considered plagiarism? Many argue that it is not, because it is essentially a tool, not just a machine, but a medium through which users interact to create content. It is an ongoing debate, especially considering how new the technology is, with ChatGPT only launched, to the vast public, last year in 2022.
EoE: Thank you Guillermo for these fascinating insights! Education is only a supporting competence in the EU, which means that it is mainly dealt with at national and regional level. Do you think that the national or regional levels are ready to face the challenges outlined in your study?
G: I can not answer that directly from our report because we did not specifically look at that aspect. However, in general, the level of satisfaction with university education seems to be relatively good. There is always room for improvement.
From my perspective, the first thing that can be done at any level is to be open and receptive to students’ voices. Adaptability has always been key for universities, and this should continue. While it is often challenging because of the additional resources required for a more student-centric approach, AI, particularly chatbots, can serve as invaluable learning tools. They offer more personalised interactions, supporting more tailored learning experiences for students. AI can also help to understand how students engage with e-learning platforms and tailor content to individual learning styles. Although there are cost challenges, AI can reduce these costs. Universities could use AI to meet students’ needs, as highlighted in our report, where 58% of students appreciated or were interested in trying AI-powered chatbots for learning purposes. They found them useful for identifying knowledge gaps and managing their workload and time effectively.
EoE: Very interesting! The purpose of your research is to gather information for policymakers to create more informed policies. How should policymakers use your findings?
G: Well, it depends on the level. The EU does not have much direct impact apart from creating programmes and offering financial support. I think the most significant impact can be made directly at the university level. It is about using reports like ours, incorporating the lessons learnt and carrying out surveys that directly involve students. Adapting to modern times is essential, particularly by prioritising mental health services and integrating critical thinking into different courses as a transversal competence. The use of AI could go a long way in customising education and facilitating assessments, solving the problem that universities face in dealing with numerous tasks efficiently. In addition, exploring tools such as virtual and augmented reality, especially augmented reality, offers an affordable solution to enhance students’ understanding of subjects through their mobile devices. These technologies can make a significant contribution to education.
EoE: And how do you disseminate your results?
G: We shared our paper with both national and European media, published it on our website and had discussions with the European Commission. However, given the resources at our disposal, we are limited in terms of outreach. Aside to our efforts through media impact and participation in Brussels conferences, disseminating our research requires considerable time and effort.
We have of course targeted the European Commission, which is the main body here, and we hope that through them this will somehow trickle down to the member states.
Our conversation with Guillermo was really enjoyable and unfolded in a relaxed manner while simultaneously allowing to delve into a particular up-to-date topic. We touched on some points that are often overlooked when talking about education, including mental health or the use of AI, but which are especially relevant in today’s university environment, affecting many students. We hope that you found the interview engaging and that it gave you some new ideas.
Cosimo Bartoloni is a master student at the Institute of European Studies.
(Edited by Luka Krauss)