The Wicked Problem in Higher Education: The Stakeholder Perspective

The Wicked Problem in Higher Education: The Stakeholder Perspective

Post 2 on the series The Wicked Problem in Higher Education. Post 1 sets the outline. Post 2 deals with the stakeholders. Post 3 describes the solution pool.

A couple of groups have a key stake in universities. These are the students, companies, faculty (Note to Europeans, the US meaning of ‘faculty’ is used, aka university academic staff), and society. You might argue that governments also have a stake in universities. They are providing funding to cover research and education related costs, and hope to cover their costs by having highly educated individuals work in their country, contributing to economic growth. But for now, let’s leave governments out of the equation, as the involvement of governments in universities differs per country, and the problem is already complex (wicked) enough.

Stakeholder 1: Student

It is often mentioned that the student population is changing and so are the needs of students. A larger portion of students are not anymore 18-25, coming directly from high school and finishing their degree without any relevant work experience. An increasing larger chunk are adults who seek to (re)educate themselves for reasons including career changes and outdated skills 1. A survey by the Parthenon Group listed 6 groups of students, each with their own motivation to attend universities 2. Differences in motivation imply that they have different aims . For the learning experiences a university offers, this means that while some students may seek a more general education, other’s want to specialize early on to pursue their career plans.

Another implications of these 6 groups of students is that they bring different “baggage” into the classroom. Whereas some may have a very limited understanding of industries and work environments, other’s will have the necessary experiences to bring theory to life. Some are independent and self-regulated learners, whereas other’s need (substantial) support to plan their learning and reflect on the way they acquire knowledge.

It is also often said that students demands on instructional formats have changed 3,4 Classes can not anymore be taught the traditional way, but need to include tools and connect with the student’s experiences and life goals. Students are used to getting information on-the-spot5. Resulting out of this, students want more than just being given information, which they could have found themselves.

Stakeholder 2: Organization

IBM’s 2012 CEO study highlighted the need for employees to collaborate with each other, and CEO’s acknowledge that organization’s performance is build on human capital 6. Knowledge becomes increasingly volatile, requiring experts to continuously update their knowledge5. Companies want to have employees who can quickly learn new capabilities to adapt to changes 7.

Work is not anymore done individually or in independent teams, but new knowledge arises out of the combinations of different sources of expertise. While organizations can provide opportunities for employees to connect, it is employees who have to recognize how their expertise fit to create something greater. This need of companies means that universities need to develop graduates who can deal with changing situations, graduates who are not afraid of leaving their old expertise behind and specialize in a different areas, graduates who can decide by themselves what future learning activities best serve their organizations and their career, and graduates who can collaborate with others and create new knowledge out of this. In short, universities need to plant the seed for adaptive expertise in graduates.

Stakeholder 3: University

Universities were set-up as centers of knowledge. At that time, most knowledge exists in books and in the minds of the experts. The complete body of expertise could be “easily” learned and universities served the purpose of preserving knowledge for future generations. But nowadays, in certain fields, it is hard to keep up with new research. The lifetime of an article (the time it takes for an article to become old news) can last from a couple of months to a couple of years, depending on the field. Knowledge does not anymore reside solely within the walls of universities and its faculty, but is increasingly freely available online. The drive towards open educational resources (OER), massive open online courses (MOOC), and open access, to name only a few, have made holes in the universities walls. Their identity is threaten by the changes in their landscape 8. Universities need to find a new reason for their existence, as the passing on of knowledge and the discovery of new knowledge does not solely happen within the walls of universities. Like the settler universities back in 1870s and 1880s 9, universities have to adapt to remain successful.

Stakeholder 4: Society

As with the settler’s universities, who had to adapt to changing demands in the local community and changes in how global scholarship was viewed 9 , so today’s universities need to adapt to what society demands of them and possible new forms of scholarship. More often I hear that faculty need to drop the mindset of “sitting in an ivory tower”, and go out and connect to society. Research needs to be applicable and relevant to societal needs. At the same time, not all faculty want to do research (with the same rigor or intensity). Universities need to allow for this, giving each faculty the space to specialize in research or teaching, while making sure that they keep a foot in the other area. In each area, faculty should also be given the freedom to experiment and innovate. This is necessary to shake the foundation of a status quo and take one step further.


1Thorpe, M. (2002). Rethinking learner support: The challenge of collaborative online learning. Open Learning, 17(2), 105–119. doi:10.1080/0268051022014688
2 Ladd, H., Reynolds, S., Selingo, J. J.The differentiated University: Recognizing the diverse needs of today’s students. The Parthenon Group . Retrieved from
3Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2010). Class differences: Online education in the United States. Sloan Consortium. Retrieved from ttp://
4Oblinger, D., & Oblinger, J. L. (2005). Educating the net generation (Vol. 264). Washington DC: Educause. Retrieved from
5 Hagel, J., Brown, J. S., Mathew, R., Wooll, M., Tsu, W. (2014). The lifetime learner. A journey through the future of postsecondary education. Deloitte University Press.
6IBM. (2012). Leading through connections: Insights from the global ceo study.
7IBM. (2010). Working beyond borders: Insights form the global chief human resource officer study. Somers, NY.
8Hagel III, J., Brown, J. S., Mathew, R., Wool, M., & Tsu, W. (2014, October). The lifetime learner: A journey through the future of postsecondary education. Retrieved from
9 Nelson, A. R. & Strohl, M. N. (2014). Universities 2030. Learning from the Past to Anticipate the Future. A commissioned report prepared for the Global Higher Education and Research (GHEAR) project, Worldwide Universities Network. Olds, K. & Robertson, S. L (Eds). Insider Higher Ed . Retrieved on 14th November 2014. Retrieved from:


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