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Fjord the good of higher education

This month we’re visiting NU 2016 in Malmö, Sweden. It’s the largest conference for the development of higher education in the country, and it’s timely because last week, Sweden was voted the number one country when it comes to serving the interests of its people and avoiding damaging impacts to others or the environment.

Beating off competition from 162 other countries (the UK was ranked 4th and the US 21st), it claimed pole position in the Good Country Index, a league table based on 35 separate indicators from sources including the United Nations and the World Bank. Prosperity & equality, and health & wellbeing were unsurprisingly where it scored the most highly.

The NU 2016 conference will address questions about the role of higher education in society – what demands society places on it and what kind of society education helps to create: just the forward thinking views you’d expect from world-ranking Sweden. In a country where higher education is still free at the point of learning for EU students, it’s encouraging to see a government-led, centralised system pushing its own boundaries and asking such questions.

But although Sweden will strive to deliver a quality education regardless of who pays the fees, there are undeniable global forces at work that will accelerate Sweden’s need to digitise it’s campuses and deliver a satisfying student experience and a return on national investment.

Foreign students – those from outside the EU, coming from countries such as Hong Kong, USA, China and Singapore must, since 2011 pay for the privilege of a Swedish higher education, leading to a decline in overseas learners. They are changing education that was for the ‘public good’ into a ‘consumer good’ opening a can of worms in terms of delivering a total university experience, not simply an academic qualification. They are digitally savvy and expect that their education will mirror their personal lives in terms of smartphone and tablet use, and failure to acknowledge this, has in the past lead to one US student studying in Sweden, to go legal to get her fees back.

Digitisation offers Sweden a way to attract foreign students to its universities, offer a progressive medium for all students and teachers and ensure its future industrially, linking alumni into their communications programmes beyond the university. Get it right and internationally as well as domestically students will benefit from the changes right across their learning experiences.

Will Sweden live up to expectations? Culture plays a huge part in the country’s psyche – it’s part of its DNA to be progressive - higher education is not immune to this. I have no doubt its learning institutions will stand up and be digitally counted. Well, it’s not number one in the world for nothing, is it.

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