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The Future of Universities: Three questions for Professor Lawrence Young

Professor Lawrence Young, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research (Life Sciences and Medicine) and Capital Development at the University of Warwick.

Published in June 2013

What’s next for universities? With the sector diversifying into online learning, not to mention the many varied opportunities offered by further and higher education colleges, it’s become harder to say what a university will look like in the future. In March 2013, leading academics and experts, organisations, and international student leaders at Warwick Universities Summit 2013 tackled the issue of universities in 2025. Speakers from across the sector discussed topics such as funding and widening access, and what the value of the global public university should be in a rapidly developing world. Here, Professor Lawrence Young talks to Alex Miles.

Students at computers

Students in the Interactive Computation Learning Suite in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Warwick. The suite is nicknamed 'The Orchard' as it is filled with 120 Apple iMac computers.

Alex Miles: What might the transformative impact of the 'MOOC movement' be on the experiential side of global higher education? Will students demand more from their investment in ‘place’? What might the physical consequences be of a move to predominantly online content provision?

Lawrence Young: That’s a tricky question. I think part of the student experience has to be wrapped up in what the students gain from actually being here, physically in a ‘place’. I think we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that whilst all digital technology is rapidly developing and providing exciting opportunities to be innovative about the way we deliver, there is something about the collegiate community of students and how that translates into the experience not only in relation to a specific discipline, but also in relation to the overall experience that students gain, and that we all gained when we went to university, over the three or four year period. I think it is really exciting that there are new approaches; I don’t think they will ever replace the actual experience of being on a campus. That doesn’t mean that we do not need to explore more innovative digital approaches in the ways we deliver our curriculum, but for me I think there is something about the core experience of being a student on a campus.

With my capital brief that means we have to look at not only, how we are effectively and efficiently using existing space but also, how we can innovative in the way that we provide space in relation to the learning and teaching experience we give our students. Partly that means being really cutting edge in terms of delivering, in terms of the use of digital media and mobile devices. It also means that we have to accept that whilst things are changing we will always need lectures. Lectures are a really important way of engaging, it’s particularly important in our environment where we are a research imbedded institution. Our belief is that research influences and informs the way that we deliver teaching. One key facet to that is that our students are exposed to the best researchers in the world and by being exposed I think that means direct contact in a either small group context or a lecture hall, and I don’t think we can get around that. So whilst MOOCs are really exciting and whilst there are clear challenges in how universities benefit and are sustainable financially in that environment (those issues need to be considered) I don’t think that replaces the campus experience.


AM: ‘Eds and Meds’ has often been held up by writers such as Will Hutton and David Willetts as the future of western economic growth – acting almost as an indicator of prosperity in some cases. Given your background in the medical sciences – what might the role of universities be in combining ‘eds and meds’ to support the UK’s economic prospects in the short-term?


LY: It’s quite clearly an issue about medicine, about bio-medical science and its’ teaching, and about research and how that informs our understanding of the various opportunities there. Clearly there is an on-going need for us to maintain our national position, our UK position in life sciences. One way to achieve that is continue on the enormous strength we have both in research and how that research informs the development of teaching. The issue for me, in terms of what this means for UK science is quite a fundamental. There was a very important report from BIS in 2012 on life sciences and the capacity to grow that area and the interesting interface between innovation in healthcare, not only in the NHS but in world-wide healthcare and the way that we teach our students. Those connections are essential.

We need to be creative in the way we provide undergraduate and postgraduate training; there is a massive need within the healthcare system in this country for continued professional development (CPD). I think we are only scratching the surface with things like the reorganisation of the NHS; we need to think about this not only in the context of hard-core biological science but with relevance to social and psychological sciences. As well as the opportunity to interact more effectively with big firms like GE healthcare, who are considering all types of opportunities with digital healthcare, etc. There is a really important position for a university such as ours which is so research intense and has enormous multi-disciplinary strength in health altogether; it’s not just about medicine or biomedicine.


AM: If you could get one commitment from the G8 summit of world leaders related to higher education that would benefit the sector, what would that be?


LY: I can’t help but be influenced by my own background. I was in New York recently with the Vice Chancellor at a UN sponsored summit looking at global health and the implications for the post 2015 millennium developments goals. I’d like to see some interaction between those millennium development goals and the G8 summit. Partly considering my medical background, it would be looking at how we can improve health globally and the responsibility that big universities have not only in the way we educate, but in how we disseminate and diffuse and support healthcare systems and biomedical training in developing countries.

I’d like to think in terms of economic growth that we can’t take our eye of the fact that we have a responsibility in the west, where we have very developed healthcare systems to think about what that means for countries like sub-Saharan Africa, India or Pakistan. I’d like to see something that acknowledges the primacy of university and of higher education in supporting that interface between the G8 and the development cause.


For more from the Knowledge Centre's Global Universities Summit blog, which focussed on the issues in higher education ahead of the 2013 Global University Summit, please click here.

The Global University Summit 2013 was hosted by the University of Warwick in Whitehall, London.


Lawrence YoungProfessor Young was appointed to the Pro-Vice-Chancellor post this year. He is responsible for the University’s Life Sciences and Medicine research strategy, including the development of research opportunities both nationally and internationally and the raising of research income, publications and citation scores for the School of Life Sciences and the Warwick Medical School. Lawrence leads on the University’s capital development and space management programmes working closely with the Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost. He also works closely with the Registrar and Chief Operating Officer in developing and implementing the University’s environment and carbon management strategy.

He has, along with the other Pro-Vice-Chancellors, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost, and the Registrar and Chief Operating Officer, responsibility for supporting the Vice-Chancellor and President in developing the University’s international profile with a particular focus on relationships with China. The Pro-Vice-Chancellors also chair committees to hear complaints, appeals and disciplinary issues.