The Wicked Problem in Higher Education: Case studies

The Wicked Problem in Higher Education: Case studies

After looking at the wicked problem from the perspective of different stakeholders, this post will deal with a couple of examples of how universities could be organized differently. In no way I’m claiming that one of those universities has the answer, but it is simply a series of examples.

Maastricht University, the Netherlands

I begin with my own university, not because I think it is doing things differently, but because it was created to organize learning differently. How much of that original spirit of entrepreneurship is still present is left to the ancient to discuss.


Based in Europe, focused on the world. Maastricht University is a stimulating environment. Where research and teaching are complementary. Where innovation is our focus. Where talent can flourish. A truly student oriented research university.


Maastricht University calls itself the “most international university of the Netherlands”. It’s strategic program and mission highlights three areas: The link to the region (society), the collaboration with other knowledge institutes, and an innovator in education according to its motto “leading in learning”. It also mentions that research is “socially relevant”, “focused”, and “based on educational excellence”.

Maastricht University was not only funded to create more doctors in the Netherlands, or to revive a ‘dying region’ (Maastricht University is located in the old coal mining region of the Netherlands), but because its founders wanted to experiment with a new pedagogy, implementing Problem-based learning throughout the university’s program. Recently, this desire to experiment with learning as flared up again in the Leading in Learning program, but resistance to change has halted the scaling up of successful new teaching initiatives (for an overview of some of the teaching experiments, have a look at the Learning and Working pilots, some of which are still running even without further financial support).

What stands out about Maastricht University is that it tries to be a teaching and research institutes: It wants to provide the best learning experience, meaning the best prepared graduates for the labor market, while also conducting high quality and socially relevant research.

Quest University, Canada


Quest University Canada is Canada’s first independent, not-for-profit, secular university. Quest offers only one degree, a Bachelor of Arts and Sciences, and focuses entirely on excellence in undergraduate education.

Source: Quest University.


Consisting of arts, humanities, mathematics, and social, life and natural sciences, the liberal arts and sciences form the basis of a well-rounded education. They allow one to develop critical thinking, intellectual breadth, and an informed, worldly perspective—they allow one to really think. […] By crossing traditional boundaries and developing valued habits of mind, a Quest education develops students into effective problem solvers and lifelong learners.

Source: Quest University

In the video below, Quest University’s president and vice-chancellor, David J. Helfand, describes nicely how static academia has been.

What jumps out of this video is his contrasting experience between excited young kids, full of questions, and students who want to work in a discipline, but being void of questions. Like if all desire to learn has vanished. It reminded me that – on average – the creative output of individuals is supposed to increase until formal education (grade 1) starts and decline steadily until retirement. After that, it picks up again. So, why was Quest University created? I think for two reasons: First, to equip graduates with the skills they need to join the workforce, and secondly to revigorate researchers by offering them an opportunity to learn and discover new insights by confronted them with other disciplines on a daily basis.

Singularity University, USA


Singularity University is a benefit corporation that provides educational programs, innovative partnerships and a startup accelerator to help individuals, businesses, institutions, investors, NGOs and governments understand cutting-edge technologies, and how to utilize these technologies to positively impact billions of people.


What seems striking is that it doesn’t seem like a traditional university. It doesn’t offer a 4 year degree, cumulating in a master, but short and focused learning sessions for future leaders to work on technology based solution for global challenges (education, energy, environment, food, health, poverty, security, space, and water). Their focus is on how to use technology to create change. Reading the website, it seems that they are not talking about the incremental change which can occur unnoticed, but the radical change which creates disruption and transformation. Since it was created in 2008, more than 100 startups and numerous patents have been created by their alumni. Singularity University stands out from other universities because it doesn’t try to transfer knowledge from an expert (the faculty) to a novice (the student), but offers its participants the infrastructure (space, resources, mentoring) to deepen their knowledge and simultaneously apply it. Applying is not done as in most traditional settings on a hypothetical case, but a real solution is being created which is only deemed successful if it can reach billions of people.

University of the People, the World


The mission of University of the People (UoPeople) is to offer affordable, quality, online, degree-granting educational programs to any qualified student.


This mission is based on the vision “that access to higher education is a key ingredient in the promotion of world peace and global economic development.  It views higher education as a basic right, and believes that it can both transform the lives of individuals and be an important force for societal change. UoPeople believes that education plays a fundamental role in strengthening respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and in promoting understanding and tolerance.”

In a way it is a traditional liberal arts colleague as it is common in the US. If offers four undergraduate courses (Associate and Bachelor degree in Business Administration and Computer Science), supplemented with a range of required educational courses in the Arts and Sciences to “expose students to the breadth of human knowledge and to the methods employed for studying“, and academic advising. This university stands out from others by its technological based delivery method and asking no tuition fee. In this way it is similar to MOOC platforms such as Coursera, Edx, and Udacity, but differs from them that it does not only offer stand-alone courses, but a full degree. Material is delivered in text and picture format to allow students with low internet connection to follow the courses. It’s a low-cost version of the Open University UK (or any other distance university) with the aim to educate people to support peace and global economic development. It thus focuses on the world and offers degrees in the two areas with the highest worldwide demand.

Knowmads Business School, Netherlands

I was searching through their website, looking for the familiar “About us” and “Mission and History” button, but without success. So instead of the mission, here a description of who they are and who their students are.

We are, you are (Mission)

We are “a life-changing experience, school and platform for people who make a positive difference in this world.” You are “entrepreneurial, creative, curious, brave, involved and willing to take action.”
Knowmads is all about working with and for people. Social interaction is most important in an ever growing world population. Students, council members, board and ambassadors all work together intensively to try and facilitate change in their lives and the world.


They goal is to educate change-makers through an education build on “love, action, and leadership”. The program is not organized like your traditional business school, but provides a mixture of helping students on their journey towards becoming an entrepreneur by learning about themselves (it sounds like guiding students on their ‘hero’s journey’) and providing them with the necessary skills to run a team/group of people foremost and a company secondly. Attention is also paid to social innovation and sustainability, in line with their motto “we educate changemakers”.  Knowmad business school seems to have a similar focus than Singularity University, aiming to create change at a personal (learner) and society level, but without the technological focus.

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