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Higher education in a world of change

15 May 2024 | Jessica Nooij, Mark O’Hara, Bruno Broucker, Anne Gannon and Silke Preymann Amidst challenges of climate change and significant societal shifts, higher education institutions are increasingly called on to act as catalysts for societal transformation. This blog considers the role of HE in helping to shape this rapidly changing world through knowledge generation, transfer and innovation.

Amidst challenges posed by climate change and significant societal shifts, higher education institutions are increasingly called upon to act as catalysts for societal transformation. They find themselves navigating a complex terrain, balancing diverse roles and competing demands. 

This blog considers the important role HE has to play in helping to shape this rapidly changing world through knowledge generation, transfer and innovation. 

In today’s rapidly changing world, higher education institutions (HEIs) are increasingly recognised as pivotal agents of societal transformation. They grapple with multifaceted challenges, from climate change to societal upheavals, while juggling diverse roles and demands.  

Traditionally, HEIs have not merely reacted to change but have actively contributed to desired transformations through knowledge generation and innovation, playing a crucial role in managing economic, social and environmental change. However, to tackle contemporary challenges effectively, HEIs must establish sustainable educational systems adaptable to environmental shifts yet resilient against uncertainties. 


Research within higher education serves as a potent driver, enabling institutions to reflect and adapt to internal and external changes. The European Association of Institutional Research (EAIR) facilitates collaboration among scholars, practitioners and policymakers worldwide to address societal challenges collectively.  

One area of focus is the role of governance within HEIs and its impact on those working and learning within them. The evolving governance landscape, influenced by paradigms like New Public Management, has reshaped HEIs, leading to increased oversight, accountability mechanisms and scrutiny. Consequently, academics face a more constrained environment, prompting HEIs to reaffirm core values and missions. 


Higher education research reveals that institutions must also navigate complex challenges associated with quality management while striving to be agents of societal transformation, particularly in addressing sustainable development. Transdisciplinary research and research-based learning play pivotal roles in this endeavour, driving HEIs to adopt multi-dimensional organisational models. 

Sustaining quality in knowledge generation and innovation while navigating institutional change will require just such a collaborative and transdisciplinary approach. Initiatives like the UNESCO program ‘Education for Sustainable Development for 2030’ offer a good example of this need and underscore the importance of a whole-institution-approach to implementing sustainable development goals (SDGs) within HEIs and local communities. 

Global engagement is another important aspect of advanced HEIs, offering access to diverse perspectives and resources, enriching education, and fostering scientific progress, embracing cooperation globally whilst preserving a regional/national focus. To achieve this, HEIs must strike a balance between fostering a flexible and innovative quality culture while managing the accompanying accountability and compliance demands associated with the increasingly internationalised student and staff experience. 


The aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic has further accelerated transformations in higher education. While exacerbating existing inequalities, the pandemic also prompted innovations in teaching and learning, such as blended learning approaches. Can HEIs maintain the gains achieved in relation to inclusive learning spaces and stakeholder engagement at all levels?  

In addition to maintaining past achievements, moving forward, HEIs are challenged to continue innovating and to extend still further those gains made during the pandemic. During these changes, student preferences have shifted as well, with many now favouring mixed-mode approaches to learning and students playing a pivotal role in shaping their own learning and HEIs policies. Their decision-making is influenced by various factors including personal resources, motivation and career prospects. HEIs face the challenge to balance student agency with academic autonomy while addressing diverse student needs and circumstances.  


While the challenges are considerable, our view is that considering the enormous amount of human capital gathered within HEIs, they are well-equipped in facing those complex challenges, and responding comprehensively with research-informed, state-of-the-art knowledge and guidance.  

Details on the authors' latest publication, 'Shaping the World of Change' are available here  


Dr Jessica Nooij is Senior Researcher at the Centre for Learning and Innovation at Avans University of Applied Sciences and Chair of the Dutch Association for Institutional Research (DAIR). Her background is in behavioural psychology, sociology, intervention and policy research. 

Professor Mark O’Hara is a Principal Fellow and is currently Senior Consultant (Education) at Advance HE. He has over 30 years’ experience in a wide variety of roles including Head of Student Experience, Associate Dean and Associate PVC. Mark is both a National Teaching Fellow and a winner of the UK’s Collaborative Award for Teaching Excellence (CATE). Mark is currently Vice Chair of the European Association of Institutional Research (EAIR).  

Dr Bruno Broucker is Head of the Education Office at the Institute of Tropical Medicine (Antwerp, Belgium) and Guest Professor at the KU Leuven (Belgium). He is Chair of EAIR, Editor-in-Chief of the Book Series ‘Higher Education: Linking Research, Policy and Practice’ (Brill) and Member of the Editorial Board at Tertiary Education and Management (Springer). Bruno Broucker has published international peer reviewed articles and book chapters in the area of higher education governance, policy and reform. 

Dr Silke Preymann is head of the Masters programme in Human Resource Management and holds the position of scientific head of diversity management at the University of Applied Sciences Upper Austria. She works as a researcher in the Department for Higher Education Research and Development and is involved in a number of international projects in the field of student engagement, ‘belonging’ and EDI in higher education. 

Dr Anne Gannon is based at University College Cork (UCC). She completed her PhD in UCC in 2019 on the impact of Government Policy on Institutional Logics in the Irish University between 2008–2014. She is a co-opted member of the EAIR Executive Committee and is on the organising committee for the 2024 Cork Forum. 

Find out more about how our Member Benefit projects 2023-24 have been exploring these and related themes.



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