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Eneli Kindsiko: Estonian university 2051

The University of Tartu.
The University of Tartu. Source: Vladislava Snurnikova/ERR

I have perceived in Estonian universities and elsewhere the pattern of people choosing the academic career path following someone's example but abandoning it as a result of poor management culture and in-house conflicts, Eneli Kindsiko writes in a comment originally published in Sirp magazine.

A study carried out among 11-16-year-old students in the UK found that the next generation's dream jobs are as follows: doctor (18 percent), influencer (17 percent) and youtuber (14 percent) – in other words, around a third of young people want to make money as social media content creators, rather than becoming a teacher or college professor. The reasons for dreaming of these professions were money (26 percent), fame (22 percent) and for the work to be enjoyable (17 percent).

The university professors of 2051 are about to be born or have at most made it to kindergarten, and because incoming generations' values and environment growing up will be quite different from those of current professors, some will grow up wanting to become influencers.

How to make sure we will still have professors of philosophy and mathematics in thirty years' time in a situation where becoming a youtuber and influencer requires less effort courtesy of working for oneself, the results are immediately obvious and the work more lucrative financially?

I have in recent years noticed statements by university rectors, researchers and some policymakers that suggest we have fallen a decade or more behind in some higher education matters. And we probably have, but the question we should be asking is what to do next.

Estonian universities, higher education in general requires alternative thinking – a "what if" mentality where the current sociodemographic trends coupled with the new generation's expectations for the nature and environment of work are fused together for a vision of the future. Every decision made or not made affects the future of (the quality of) higher education.

To understand how quickly changes are taking place, we can think back to how higher education was obtained 30 years ago, in 1991. A study environment where one made do largely without the internet and smartphones or laptops for that matter and where the lecturer's role, nature of work and expected competency differed from today.

Those who started their bachelor's studies in 2005 were largely taught with the help of piles of notebooks, plastic slides and overhead projectors. The first professor to make use of a PowerPoint presentation came off as an academic rock star.

Today, a lot of professors not only have to be proficient with PowerPoint and its alternatives but were forced to become miniature television production companies during COVID-19 remote learning – BBB, Zoom, Teams, Skype, Google Meet, Panopto etc. The menu was overwhelming, orders specific and resources scarce.

In order to understand what the work of a university lecturer could be in 2051, acknowledging the pace of change over the last 30 years is not enough – the recent pace of changes will likely be multiplied by five.

We can always procure cutting edge technology as long as we have money. Just as we have spent wads of EU cash on grand concreter structures and fancy laboratories. The only thing we cannot buy are people who would want and know how to work in those buildings.

I tend to believe that motivating new generations to opt for an academic career requires a far more complex equation that boils down to more than money. Tripling the salary of a poor teacher is no guarantee of quality of tuition and just leaves you with an overpaid lecturer.

This equation would likely need to include attaching value to academic work, a holistic proportion of difference roles, university management structure, organization of university activities (whether everything needs to be done or are some tasks maintained out of inertia) and an x number of other aspects.

I have perceived in Estonian universities and elsewhere the pattern of people choosing the academic career path following someone's example (often that of an influential doctoral supervisor who manages to spark an interest in the scientific) but abandoning it as a result of poor management culture and in-house conflicts.

I am not underestimating the value of money as a motivator, while fighting over already scarce resources is clearly detrimental to culture, but there are some things that are free. People are the bearers of organizational culture and studies suggest the measure of humanity is what matters to new generations.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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