Xavier Prats Monné, strategic initiatives advisor for the UOC and previously served at the European Commission as Director-General for Education and Culture
Xavier Prats Monné is a strategic initiatives advisor for the UOC and previously served at the European Commission as Director-General for Education and Culture. We caught up with him to talk about his work with the UOC and the role of universities today. Drawing on his long career as an international advisor on public policy, education and European affairs, his outlook is optimistic.
How would you define yourself?
Perhaps as an optimistic anthropologist. I'm an anthropologist because I have always been interested in the complexity of the relationship between the individual and society. And I'm optimistic because optimism is a strategy: if we don't believe that despite everything the world can be better, we won't have the strength to make a better world. I've always been lucky enough to be surrounded by people who share that vision, as I am at the UOC; people who believe that the world is able to move forward and that they can help that happen.
Working in education allows you to see that improvement is always possible, even in the face of numerous challenges. For example, none of the countries that now top the world rankings for school results – Singapore, Finland, Estonia – were even in the top thirty years ago. The arc of history bends toward progress, even if it takes years and we face numerous difficulties that should in no way be ignored.
What were the key takeaways from your time as Director-General for Education and Culture in the European Union?
The things that struck me most were both the transformative power of education – for both people and society – and the limited powers that the European Union possesses in relation to education. And another paradox that has stayed with me from that time in my career is that the European Union is asked to do two legitimate but incompatible things: to only concern itself with things that are in the public interest, as well as being limited to those areas in which it has powers. Education, health and employment are the best examples of the fact that the interests or needs of citizens are sometimes at odds with the competence granted to the European institutions.
I was also struck by the contrast between the vast amount of evidence we have about what works in education and how little that evidence is applied in practice. How many governments evaluate the impact of an educational law before passing a new one? If you compare European education systems, you see that the problem we have is not to do with designing policies but with applying them: convincing, involving and motivating the host of stakeholders that determine the success or failure of an educational policy or law.
And the most positive aspect of the European experience is having the opportunity to learn and improve as a result of European education and research programmes, such as Horizon 2020, Marie Skłodowska-Curie and, of course, Erasmus, through which, as well as mobility, also generate an element of systemic innovation, which enables a highly diverse range of countries and schools to learn from each other.
What do you think online education needs to be?
We live in societies that have been digitalized for a quarter of a century. One of the few areas of our lives that is not yet fully digitalized is education. Of course, the UOC is an exception to that rule, as it was originally set up as a digital university. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic many universities have had to go digital in the space of a single semester. This has highlighted significant shortcomings in terms of infrastructure and digital skills; and the paradox that, for example, many young people, ten, fifteen or twenty year olds, are immersed in a digital environment day in, day out, except for when they are in the classroom.
In that regard, education in general and universities in particular need to keep pace with society, capitalizing on the potential of digitalization and also being aware of the pitfalls: everything from the potential for adapting and personalizing teaching, to the danger of determinism corresponding to logarithms, which can prematurely limit people's learning potential. That said, the factors that influence the quality of education are the same whether it happens online or in the classroom, starting with the quality of the educator.
What would you say about the phrase "the UOC is all about online classes"?
To say that the UOC is a university "which teaches on the Internet" is to confuse the means with the ends. What I like about the UOC is that it is much closer than others to fulfilling the mission that, in my opinion, any university should have in the 21st century: being an institution that is open to the world, that teaches a growing number of people, provides lifelong education without any barriers in terms of age or origin, and which rather than an ivory tower is an open field.
What have you been specifically tasked with doing for the UOC and what added value can you bring to the table?
First of all, my aim is not to tread on anyone's toes, as there are lots of people doing lots of things, and doing them very well, at this University. That said, my main task is to promote the UOC in the international arena and build links with multilateral organizations, such as the European Union and the World Bank, which have complex modes of operation that, as a result of my experience, I am familiar with; for example, raising awareness about what our University is doing to exploit the potential of digital education and open knowledge; or providing the UOC with opportunities to access the support, visibility and exchange schemes offered by these institutions. I also hope to offer an outsider's perspective of the UOC's strategic activities and priorities and support its commitment to being a young and innovative university, if only because you can often see value in things when you look at them with fresh eyes than when they are in front of you all the time.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected education in general and the UOC in particular?
I believe that the most important lesson the international community has learned from the pandemic has not been primarily in the area of higher education but in the context of schools: the close relationship that exists between education, inequality and social exclusion. We have seen that even a minor disruption in the education system is able to generate severe discrepancies, as for a child from a disadvantaged family or social background, not being able to go to school becomes a critical issue. Ultimately, perhaps now more than ever we are appreciating the value of a good education.
The second lesson is that education requires everyone's involvement; the effective functioning of an education system is based on student, family and school participation. Many parents now appreciate the difficulties associated with getting involved in their children's educational lives, as well as how essential it is; in many cases this has happened very suddenly and in the worst possible conditions, during lockdown.
Lastly, the pandemic has emphasized the fact that education has not followed the same process of digitalization as the vast majority of society. The education system has been existing in a comfortable bubble, isolated from the disruptive changes brought about by technology. On the day when schools and universities closed all over our country last year, many teachers and university professors had never used any kind of digital tool in their entire professional career or even posted a PDF document online. Now let's hope that we will be able to capitalize on these experiences to make rapid progress. In the case of the UOC, this past year has served as a confirmation of the validity of its model, and, of course, it has had an easier job of adapting to the situation than other universities. The important thing now is to capitalize on our experience in relation to the bespoke digital education model we have had for the past 25 years to be able to move forward with regard to everything that digitalization represents in the field of education, even to radically transform the methods of teaching and learning. Thinking, for example, about continuing education, rather than focusing on the range of degrees and qualifications offered, universities' future may be about how technology can be used to provide continued access to the knowledge that the universities produce.
So how is the UOC currently positioned within the field of higher education?
The UOC is in a very favourable position in a race that has only just begun. Most universities all over the world and in continental and Mediterranean Europe in particular have begun their digital education journeys much later than the UOC. There is still a certain amount of prejudice in relation to online learning universities, especially from those who, based on eight centuries of classroom-based university education, cannot imagine any other future. Prejudices like these are enduring, but I think the UOC now has a great opportunity to demonstrate the quality of its education, as it has been doing since the outbreak of the pandemic.
In my opinion though, due to a combination of globalization, demographic change and technology, education is about to be hit by a tsunami that will affect everyone. More models, hybrid formulas, platforms will be created; everyone will have to adapt, because technology has, all of a sudden, now landed in education and is here to stay, and it will generate the same kind of disruption that has been experienced in other sectors. The flexibility we have at the UOC, with a digital platform and an ecosystem of permanent teaching staff and collaborators, may prove to be an important asset for a university that will be required to offer very different services.
What direction do you see the UOC of the future taking? What are the major challenges is faces?
I don't feel qualified to answer such a complex question, but I think we face at least three major challenges.
The first is academic: breaking away from the established norms. Nowadays, knowledge is interdisciplinary and innovation is non-disciplinary, whereas universities are traditionally organized vertically by departments; the UOC has done a lot to break down these vertical barriers and we must continue that work. We also need to break away from the norms regarding educational levels, for example those associated with general education and second- and third-level vocational education. These divisions are administratively useful but on no use for citizens. Finally, there is no need to limit your learning to just one university and the UOC must continue to open up to the world and strengthen its demographic, geographic and linguistic reach. The future is the atomization of disciplines, collaboration between universities and the flexibility of the curriculum and academic profile. And that is a future that the UOC has the capacity to approach with strength, self-confidence and ambition.
The second major challenge is the technological medium. The UOC was founded 25 years ago with an extremely innovative platform, but now we have new developments to consider, such as artificial intelligence and augmented reality. Change such as this requires money and significant organizational efforts, with the need to break down inertias, customs and systems. But it is an essential development, because I believe that the future of the university system, be it traditional or digital, is dependent on more effective use of technology.
Finally, I envisage an institutional and, even, political challenge, to convince society and its representatives that the UOC possesses extraordinary potential and that its mission of public interest is essential for the country. You only need to re-read the UOC's founding act from 1995 in conjunction with the experience of these past 25 years of digitalization and the last 15 months of the pandemic to appreciate this mission and its importance.
What role will the UOC play within society?
Any university, especially if it is public, must justify its existence and its usefulness to society: technology, climate change, populism, are all challenges of the modern world that cannot be solved without knowledge and, therefore, without a committed and active contribution from the university. The UOC has always been emphatic about its commitment to society and was originally set up with the mission of studying the impact of technology on society.
The pandemic has also generated a renewed awareness of the importance of knowledge and scientific cooperation: we have seen global scientific cooperation on a scale that is unprecedented in the history of mankind. A university's physical location is no longer a primary consideration; it's not the location of your offices but your vision that matters. We need to think more about a global university and the UOC, as a digital university, is also ahead of the game in that respect.
On a final note, I'd like to stress one of the points that I see as being key to the future of the UOC and to its mission with regard to society, and that is its spirit as a young, female-driven university. We know from experience that when there are sufficient women in positions of responsibility in an organization, that organization exhibits greater concern for real problems in society and is more empathetic and more inclusive. Although my involvement doesn't help the gender balance within the institution in any way, I also hope to be able to make a modest contribution to the fact that the UOC continues to be a feminist university.
Finally, what do the following represent for you...