Higher Education: Critical challenges in shaping new generation in a constantly changing environment

The ultimate ideal of this 21st century is creativity: the urge to continuously learn, modify our learning as things change, and the collective will for “lifelong learning.”

ByDebananda S Ningthoujam

Updated 4 Jun 2022, 6:20 pm

Manipur University (PHOTO: Facebook)
Manipur University (PHOTO: Facebook)


In this 21st century, we live in a knowledge society marked by the needs of lifelong learning (Guni Network). In this era, the world is in crisis, time is fluid, nothing remains the same for long, systems are unstable and everything changes constantly. Can our students effectively survive in this kind of society while our educational institutions train them to guzzle tons of information without digesting them, encourage them to memorize facts and do rote learning, and ‘educate’ them about a world which is long gone?

Our institutions urgently need to reinvent themselves so that they can train students who can effectively adapt themselves for life and work in the 21st century.

But our educational institutions are like dinosaurs, hardly adapted to changing environments!

The Need for a New Educational Paradigm

The educational model has changed from making loyal citizens to producing well-trained citizens to, in more recent times, nurturing citizens with the critical spirit. The ultimate ideal of this 21st century is creativity: the urge to continuously learn, modify our learning as things change, and the collective will for “lifelong learning.” We need to continually learn, unlearn, and re-learn in this millennium.

In the knowledge society, education must inculcate the capacity to be creative in a constantly changing environment. We, therefore, need a flexible, adaptive, and evolving educational system that propels us away from sporadic education towards lifelong learning.

Education must break away from the constraints of time and place. In other words, education must constantly take place in and out of the classroom; it must not also be restricted to specific periods of life; education must continue from the cradle to the grave.

Many experts have dubbed this model as “any time, any place” education. As Orr (2004) said, “More of the same kind of education will only compound our problems…It is not education, but education of a certain kind, that will save us.”


Reinventing Higher Education

We need a futuristic higher education that educate new generations who can build the future. One challenge in creating this type of higher education is in fostering institutional change required for educational innovation and in integration of ICTs in the teaching and learning process. Another is to encourage international cooperation for sharing knowledge across borders and facilitate international collaboration.

The universities must improve their management of resources as well as internal democracy. Interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary knowledge networks must be promoted at the highest level. New teaching-learning approaches must be nurtured that enable development of critical thinking, creativity and other 21st century skills in the students.

A new contract between the university and the society it serves is required. The work of HE institutions must be relevant not only in the global context but also in terms of local needs. Universities must serve social needs and must conduct research projects that address local problems. Universities can no more remain as ivory towers but must become illuminating beacons of knowledge guiding the surrounding society.

Major Challenges in Higher Education

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF, 2019), the 4 biggest challenges to higher education (HE) are: increasing need for lifelong learning, the evolving needs of the students, emerging technologies, and the urgent need for a “skills over degrees” model. In this age, you need to run 10 times faster to stay in the same place.

We need to constantly learn and update our skills to stay relevant in the digital economy and a post-industrial society in which humans have to increasingly work in synergy with digital gadgets, robots, and AI.

In the 21st century, the new jobs needed will be for data analysts, AI and machine learning specialists, big data specialists and new technology and IT services specialists; many of which we cannot still imagine. Students would increasingly demand flexible, seamless, and personalized educational experiences. Educational institutions are slow organisms (like snails) but they need to become fast-movers (like cheetahs).

Already, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon are experimenting with inexpensive, AI-driven education, a kind of ‘Netflix for education’ model.

Our universities must evolve a mix of online, offline, hybrid and “flipped classroom” models for a polymathic type of higher education suited to the 21st century; HE systems must increasingly emphasize acquisition of skills over degrees.

Urgent Need for 21st Century Skills


In the old model, emphasis was placed on the three Rs: reading, writing, and arithmetic. These skills would not suffice in the present century. Therefore, many experts have compiled a list of critical 21st century skills. These skills come in 3 categories: learning skills, literacy skills, and life skills.

Learning Skills

These include: critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication (the 4 Cs). Unfortunately, most universities in developing countries hardly promote these skills in students. Our universities must re-organize themselves to nurture these critical skills in their students.

Literacy Skills

These skills are: information literacy, media literacy, and technology literacy (IMT skills).

Life Skills

The most critical life skills are: flexibility, leadership, initiative, productivity, and social skills (FLIPS).

It’s high time that the administrators in our universities realize that they cannot run these higher educational institutions in “business as usual” mode. They need to work in cordial synergy with the faculty to re-invent the institutions to enable them to educate our students so that they are fully adapted to life and work in the 21st century.

Dinosaurs roamed majestically in the Jurassic age. Our universities cannot remain as anachronistic dinosaurs in the anthropocene age. It is fondly hoped that some key players in our HE institutions are listening and awakening to the needs of our students to acquire the 4Cs, IMT literacy and FLIPS skills. It’s high time that our universities move fast towards a new paradigm.

(The views expressed are personal)


First published:


higher educationlearningteachinglearning environment

Debananda S Ningthoujam

Debananda S Ningthoujam

The author teaches and studies microbial biochemistry and biotechnology at Manipur University


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