Podcast: Nurturing the future of higher education with critical wisdom

How will higher education be relevant ten years from now?

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In this podcast, Ben Nelson, founder and CEO of Minerva, and Ivan Bofarull, chief innovation officer at Esade, reflect on the challenges in reinventing higher education.

Ivan Bofarull: Hi everyone. This is Esade’s Do Better and the first of a series of episodes about the future of learning and education. My name is Ivan Bofarull, chief innovation officer at Esade. I love what I do here. My job is to scout the people and organisations who are reshaping education, explore future scenarios and find signals in a noisy environment. Today, it is a pleasure to welcome a transformative leader and a friend, the founder and CEO of the Minerva project, the academic institution that is reinventing higher education from scratch.

Let’s go to the experience of starting, developing and making Minerva one of the influential academic institutions for the future. What do you think the world is going to miss if Minerva doesn't survive the next ten years?

Ben Nelson: It will miss two things. One is specific, in that I believe universities should have a point of view. Universities shouldn't just be a conglomeration of information. Because guess what, then you only need one university. If you only need to present facts and data, why do you need universities? You could drive the internet.

Ivan Bofarull: Or just use Google.

Ben Nelson podcast
Ben Nelson and Ivan Bofarull during the podcast session at Esade Business School in Barcelona (Photo: Esade)

Ben Nelson: You're right. Google is organising the world's information and doing a fairly decent job. Maybe you need some other institution that puts together reservations and you're done. But clearly, that's not what education is about. Education isn't about just the dissemination of information. It is about systems of thinking. 

And Minerva has a perspective on what that system is. We believe that the system that we have developed is crucial for students, and graduates will use it to solve deep problems in the world. 

The first thing the world will miss is practitioners of this thinking system set. And it really is a set of different systems that we provide our students. 

But I think the second thing the world would miss, and this is even more important, is the dissemination of that philosophy. Because although universities don't disseminate the same information, they generally have no coherent perspective. What happens in the classroom is mostly the purview of whatever a professor decides to do. There is no institutional driving force behind an institution. And bizarrely enough, that's a recent phenomenon and part of the classical tradition of universities.  We are here in a Jesuit university. There are Jesuit concepts, but it doesn't mean that what happens in a classroom is dictated. However, there's an overarching curricular philosophy that should distinguish a Jesuit from a non-Jesuit school. 

Within ten years we will see a clear separation between institutions that just pay lip service to education, versus institutions that actually care about education

There's something about that perspective that all Jesuit universities and faculty offer. There should be a shared essence. And I think that there is no better example than the Jesuits of putting a philosophy to work, creating an overarching framework, while enabling professors to bring their own voice and perspective into every classroom – and encouraging academic freedom in a structured education. Minerva is another good example of an overarching approach. 

Ivan Bofarull: It looks like you are trying to bring the unique aspects of education and learning into the future. How do you believe education and learning will have radically changed ten years from now?

Ben Nelson: We've gone through a substantial amount of change over the past century or so, and certainly since the spread of broadly accessible internet. The changes that are profound are those that don’t just do more efficiently what was done before the introduction of a new technology. The changes that are enabled are behavioural changes that would be impossible without the deployment of a new technology. That's where profound shifts occur.  

I think that ten years is not enough time to flip the global higher education model on its head. But it's certainly enough time for the leading innovators to join us in this process of looking at education in a new way – and not just the old way with added technology. Now we can go to the roots of what we want to do and approach education in a radically different way.

Despite some turmoil in the sector this decade, the vast majority of educational institutions will still exist ten years from now

A simple example. Imagine a professor teaching a group of students on day one. The students have varying understandings of the material, and so the professor must repeat all the prerequisites at the beginning of the class. Now imagine that the professor could instead build on and develop a shared intellectual language that they've already consumed.  

The professor would know the strengths and weaknesses of each student in every aspect of the intellectual language. When the professor enables them to apply that language in the context he is teaching, the students could then practise in the areas where they struggle most, and those who have mastered one area can focus on other areas. This changes the nature of education for the better.

Ivan Bofarull: So you believe that we will see a more personalised process of learning ten years from now.

Ben Nelson: I believe that in those institutions of higher education that care about their students, and this is a big qualifier, you will see the adoption of these new philosophies. 

However, what we are revealing here is the incentive structure of institutions of higher education and their leaderships. A lot of institutions will say all the right things, yet are comfortable doing all the wrong things. And there are very few institutions that are motivated to do the necessary hard work. Their incentive structure isn't tied to doing what is right for their students. 

A decade is too short for systematic change in higher education

Within ten years we will see a clear separation between institutions that just pay lip service to education, versus institutions that actually care about education.

Ivan Bofarull: Coming back to established academic institutions, we see that the world's greatest academic institutions are a synonym for stability. And these institutions are among the most stable institutions in the world. What do you think will be unchanged ten years from now?

Ben Nelson: I think there are a few things that won't change. First and foremost, despite some turmoil in the sector this decade, the vast majority of educational institutions will still exist ten years from now. Most will be doing the same thing they're doing now. 

They may add marketing. They may say, "Oh, look, we have technology over there in the corner, or look at this wonderful innovative thing we do," but it will not be substantive.

So unfortunately, I believe a decade is too short for systematic change in higher education. 

I also think that there are going to be some sectors, what I like to refer to as the "license Raj", that are going to be exactly the same. If you want to be a practising doctor, you must go to medical school. In the business world, you don't have to go to business school to run a business. That means business education is, by definition, much more dynamic because it is open to market forces – while being a doctor isn't. 

There are going to be professions such as doctors, lawyers, dentists and veterinarians who will continue to be trained exactly as they are trained today, simply because the ‘license Raj’ won't force them to innovate. 

My hope is that even in these sectors, the professional accreditation and licensing bodies will start to say, "Wait a second, look at all the innovative things that are happening in other sectors. You have to do that."

My hope is that in ten years, some of these programmes will start to reform.

The most critical thing for us to get right as a global society is education

Ivan Bofarull: Let's say that 20 years from now, your kids, who will probably be 20 something, are waking up on a Saturday or Sunday morning and they're watching a documentary on Netflix or Apple TV about Minerva. What would you like this documentary to say about Minerva? What would be the title of that documentary?

Ben Nelson: If I had to pick a title, then I think about our mission: nurturing criticalism for the sake of the world. If I had to pick one word that is descriptive of what we do, then that word is "wisdom."

But the most descriptive word is "critical." If there is one word that I would like to have in the title of a documentary about us, it would be critical because Minerva looks with a critical eye at what we believe are the most critical institutions in the world.

It would be hard to disagree that the most critical thing for us to get right as a global society is education. Because if we get education right, we get everything right. The things that are not going well in the world evidence the fact that we're missing the boat on this critical aspect. 

Ivan Bofarull: Ben, you mentioned that people at Minerva, and you as CEO, share a unifying drive. I have the impression that when this unifying drive is so strong, you might sometimes have a hard time changing your mind. When was the last time you changed your mind on something that was relevant for you or Minerva?

Ben Nelson: You're right. When you are so messianic and you're driven by a mission, you see a truth. And you feel compelled to spread the word about the truth. And so it is very hard to maintain an open and flexible mind as you encounter reality.

Talent is not concentrated among the people we know. It's broadly distributed

It is particularly challenging when your vision of this ideal seems to be working – and when you're getting constant positive reinforcement and you see outstanding student outcomes that no one has seen before. You can so easily believe you have all the answers.

However, such a feeling is in stark contrast to the thousands of elements that you must be aware of because that's how you iterate and change. If you were to look at an interview or podcast that I did seven or eight years ago, I would have described Minerva almost identically to the way I describe it today. 

But if you look at the details at Minerva, versus what I thought would happen seven or eight years ago, then those details are vastly different. 

If I had to think about one area that was really big in this journey, in which I had to really radically change my perspective – and this hard for me to admit – then it is my view about people. 

If you're listening to this podcast, you are probably university-educated or about to be, you are probably surrounded by a set of professional, or upper middle class, or upper class individuals. However, it's easy for you to look up and say: "Oh, look at those elitists, the billionaires in the world. I'm not an elitist. I'm a common person."

But we don't realise that we are far from common. We are in the elite. And the world is not comprised predominantly of people like us. But more importantly, talent is not concentrated among the people we know. It's broadly distributed. 

When I started Minerva, I had a general feeling that this was true. That's how we structured the institution. A typical American university charges $70,000 a year, and more than half of the student body at the most selective universities can afford to pay $70,000. 

Universities sometimes distort the statistics to show otherwise, but 52% to 55% of universities are able to get students who can afford that kind of money.

When you're in the business of education and you're trying to have global impact, you have to think about where people are and where talent is to be found

I said we are going to charge $30,000 and we're going to make Minerva much more accessible. And because we're not going to be elitist financially, and we're going to open the doors wide, and because we're charging so much less, we're going to have a more socio-economically diverse student body. But I still imagined that half of our students would be able to afford $30,000.  

The reality is that the number of people who can easily afford to spend $30,000 a year for four years, versus the number of people who can easily afford to spend $70,000 for four years, is not that big of a delta. As soon as we started operating Minerva, it turned out that nearly 80% of our students couldn't afford even $30,000, but 75% could afford $20,000. It was a very loud wake up call. 

When you're in the business of education and you're trying to have global impact as opposed to a local, regional, or specific impact, then you have to think about where people are and where talent is to be found – and it is not among the people you know. 

It's not to say that there are no talented students among my friends, there are, but they're not there in a higher concentration than among other communities that I've never met. 

Eight years ago it was easy for me to say that I looked at students as human beings first and foremost, but it wasn't true. We need to think about students not as people who are from a particular country, or from a particular economic background, or anything "superficial." Every year at Minerva makes me realise all of the biases and trappings that I have absorbed and that I need to counter when I approach other people.

Ivan Bofarull: We aim to finish every episode of these podcasts about the future of education and learning by creating a compounding learning effect. Why don't you give us a recommendation about a book, or any other reading, that would be useful for our audience to keep on learning?

Ben Nelson: One of the most important books in the Minerva Pantheon that we give our students is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, fast and slow. It's been a few years since it's been published, but it has stood the test of time. It provides a fantastic framework for understanding how the mind works and how to deal with the fact that you have a highly imperfect machine sitting in your head. 

Ivan Bofarull: Awesome. And there is a second question: which hacks or habits do you recommend for learning?

Ben Nelson: The most important thing we do at Minerva is this idea of transfer. It's this concept that you can apply a particular methodology in drastically different contexts. I recommend that when you are going about your day-to-day life, and you are doing something well, and you know that you're very good at it, try to understand what is the essence behind what made you good at that particular activity.

Then force yourself to think about the correlation between that and something that you’re not particularly good at. For example, if you have a very successful relationship with your co-workers, and you have a hard time with your spouse or significant other, think about what is it that is effective when you deal with your co-workers and how you put that into effect in your relationships. 

If you are designing a particular process in your hobby. Let’s say you like to build something very complicated, and you go through a certain process, think about whether you approach constructing, say a piece of legislation, in the same way. When you support a political party or a position, what processes can you leverage from your hobby to understand a proposed solution for something that matters to society?

The ability to isolate the underlying principles that you employ today and apply them elsewhere is the core of what we do. It's easier said than done. This is why Minerva education exists, but if you start having a little bit of that mentality, I think it helps.

Ivan Bofarull: Ben, thank you very much. It's been an amazing conversation. And I can only wish that Minerva and Esade spread critical wisdom throughout the world in the years to come. 

Ben Nelson: I look forward to that. Thank you.

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