Marta Muñiz Ferrer: "Obtaining a high quality international education IS possible"
November 10, 2020
All Knowledge Areas
There are some decisions in life that are decisive and may define the rest of our journey in this world. This means that careful consideration is the best option to ensure we don’t make a mistake we will later regret. One such decision is which university degree studies to choose, something very difficult to know at 18 years old when one does not usually have a sufficient understanding or clear idea of which path to walk. This quite possibly causes great pressure as we leap into a new, unknown world where we don’t know very much yet.
Spanish mentality obliges us to choose at a very early age which will be our path, and it still seems strange to us that a university graduate would specialize in an area of studies that is totally different from what they studied in college. This is not so in other parts of the world. In the US, for example, it is typical for college students to choose a variety of different courses, with some of them pertaining to a specific area of specialization or major (which they eventually graduate in). This makes it possible to major in Mathematics while also studying courses in Literature or History. Courses, which are really from totally different areas of knowledge.
Several months ago, El Confidencial news agency reported that a group of investors —led by Carlos Tejera, President of Gala Capital, and Attorney Miguel Riaño— acquired Schiller International University, committing to converting the university into an academic institution of reference for international students through a unique and highly competitive academic offer.
One of the greatest differentiating factors of Schiller International University’s student offer is the dual American and European degree, through which students have access to both professional global markets without impediment. In addition, Schiller does not have traditional semester terms, but rather students can enroll at any time of the year. This is thanks to Schiller’s “modified semester” approach which concentrates learning within 4-week blocks (one course per month) rather that students having to study several courses at the same time over the traditional 16-week term.
More and more, value is being placed on a professional with a varied résumé including ample training and ongoing upskilling, whether that be through online certification or a Master’s Degree at a prestigious university
Marta Muñiz Ferrer, PhD in Economic and Business Sciences at Universidad Pontificia Comillas, is currently CEO of Schiller International University. In April of this year she came on as Vice President and General Manager. She offers us insight as to the specific challenges faced by Schiller, as well as those of Spanish universities in general in a globalized world hit by the current coronavirus pandemic.
When asked if in Spain we are obsessed with 'Title-itis', [Title being the Spanish Word for university degree] she highlights: "I believe in Spain we use this concept to refer to the transformation experience that leads us to obtain a university degree. Receiving a degree means facing a series of trials and interactions that undoubtedly transform a student, instilling in them skills and capabilities that are highly valued in the professional job market. The trend in today’s world is changing regarding what we consider a degree and the value it holds. More and more, value is being placed on a professional with a varied résumé including ample training and ongoing upskilling, whether that be through online certification or a Master’s Degree at a prestigious university. Nowadays, the issue is how quickly you are able to expand your development in line with the needs of the job market, something that is not always possible to do through the traditional pathways, neither due to time constraints nor cost".
Question. What are the advantages of an American higher education in comparison with its Spanish counterpart?
Answer. American higher education, unlike Spanish or the majority of other educational systems, is based on a more flexible and open learning system where the student has a much more active role in defining the pathway to obtaining their degree. They are allowed to choose among a wide variety of course matter within their chosen degree path, and ultimately decide as they advance in their studies, if they want to specialize in a specific topic or expand their knowledge beyond the discipline. This gives students the advantage of becoming more specialized, on a more individualized basis, within the professional field of their choice. Another difference resides in the establishment of a holistic knowledge base: The General Education curriculum which serves to align students.
A distinctive characteristic of the US Educational System is the strong connection with the professional world, which translates into highly practice-based methodologies.
In a student’s first year of studies, they learn basic fundamentals that allow them to adapt to a university study environment in a progressive manner, while at the same time ensuring a solid base of knowledge through cross-disciplinary courses such as Science, Math, Sociology, History, Foreign Language, etc. that pave the way towards a variety of different degrees where the student doesn’t necessarily have to choose their area of specialization until later on. At Schiller, for example, many students decide to major in double degrees once they have a solid base of knowledge and competencies, usually in third or fourth year. Finally, a distinctive characteristic of the US educational system is the strong connection with the professional world, which translates into highly practice-based methodologies, including Project-based learning or challenge-based learning that are more holistic in their approach, rather than focusing learning acquisition on exam results, with assessment methods that are very different to European forms of measuring learning consisting in ongoing assessment that focuses on the acquisition of skills and competencies. Definitively, the all the aforementioned applied to the university student translates into a greater level of maturity and information at the time of making a decision as important as which university degree or major to study; a distinctive curricular design based on course choice and better professional competency-based learning.
Q. Why do you think in Spain there is a rooted idea that at 18 years old you must know what you want to study, when in the United States there is much more flexibility in this regard?
A. The answer to this question resides in the difference between the two educational systems. In Spain, as a matter of fact, even before you are 18 you have to know what you want to study. In the last two years of high school (college prep in Spain) you must already choose an itinerary of either Science, Humanities and Social Sciences or Arts, conditioning what type of higher education degrees you are allowed to choose later on, and consequently the types of jobs you will have access to in the future. And this decision is made [in Spain] when you are 16 years old.
Schiller offers a connection to the professional world, providing direct Access, which is a totally differential aspect.
It is a very difficult decision, one that several studies report contribute in part to the high dropout rate, and consequently low number of graduates in Spain in comparison with other countries where studies are more open and flexible regarding choice of Higher studies. In the US, bachelor’s degrees require a set of general education subjects that are learned in the first year and a half, where students have not yet declared a specific area of studies (or Major). Until then, students have the option of choosing electives where they can get an idea of certain areas of interest and find out which ones they like the most. It is not until the end of their second year that they are required to make a decision regarding their Major. At this point they are 20 years old and have had the opportunity to try out different study interests. In their last 2 years of study is when they gain in-depth knowledge of the more technical aspects of the specific subject matter. In this way, the decision is made with greater maturity, knowledge and self-confidence in one’s own capabilities.
Q. How can the best of both worlds be combined: a US and EU Education?
A. The opportunity Schiller offers of receiving both an American and European degree at the same time is unique in that it incorporates the best of both educational systems. It guarantees students will receive optimal learning, equipping them with solid foundations and rigorous knowledge standards while at the same time targeting development in competencies and a connection to the real professional world. Students gain direct access to both job markets, and this is what sets us apart.
Q. How does an international university like Schiller adapt to a reality where students cannot travel? Are your students going to have to renounce to having an international education due to the current pandemic situation?
A. No, despite the situation we are living in at the moment, students do not have to forego having a quality international education. Our greatest allies are technology and the high professional level of our faculty. In March, Schiller was one of the first universities to adapt to the new situation offering students on our four campuses, Florida, Madrid, París and Heidelberg learning through virtual formats without losing educational quality. In addition, they have been able to continue enjoying their university experience. This would not have been possible without important investments in technology and training of our faculty. But the truth is that we were at an advantage because Schiller already had accredited distance education programs offered fully online, and also thanks to HyFlex technology, which allows having some students physically in the classroom while others connect from a distance through remote methods (online LMS), guaranteeing interaction and international networking no matter where they are.
The rigidness of the higher education system and devotion to all that is traditional, and the permanence of archaic governance models do not facilitate innovation or adaptation to change
This methodology forms part of our Academic Model as it allows us to offer the flexibility required by international profiles, and develop professional competencies that are key in today’s digitalized world, guaranteeing them a multi-campus experience. We could say that we were already preparing for what has come, and so the challenge has not been so great in our case as it has for others. Our students have continued attending classes from home or on campuses adapted to all the Covid measures and guidelines, and will continue to offer an international experience both in online and onsite formats as students prefer and as the circumstances allow at each moment. This combination of activities permits students to not have to renounce to having an international education, especially at the Bachelor’s level, where a temporary situation cannot affect four years of education or lessen a student’s opportunities for a professional or personal global path.
Q. What would you say to students in order to prepare them for a post-Covid world, taking into account the economic challenges marked by future uncertainty?
A. For two decades now, we have been telling our students that the most important skill they need to develop is adaptability to change. With the evolving of new technologies, the so-called fourth industrial revolution, we are faced with an acceleration of the rate of change never before seen, where uncertainty is the only constant. This pandemic has shown us this to an even greater extent, providing a component of vulnerability that we are not accustomed to currently in Western countries. It also confirms to what point we live in a globalized world where the butterfly effect can impact an entire population.
We must understand that learning is not confined to the classroom, but rather that every life experience is an opportunity to learn
I would say that that’s life, full of uncertainties, but each new problem is an opportunity for learning and they must prepare themselves, invest in their education and in their life experiences in order to acquire the knowledge and skills that will allow them to design their own path and achieve their dreams. Nowadays, this means breaking traditional barriers imposed by previous models, many of them outdated. We must break the barriers between science and the arts, and acquire analytical and communication skills; we must learn to integrate technology and understand it as an ally rather than just a means to an end; we must understand that learning is not confined to the classroom, but rather that every life experience is an opportunity to learn; we must cease struggling between local and global, we are all citizens of this world and as such are responsible for its sustainability. Without a doubt, I would tell them to foster their spirit for critical thinking and to see diversity as a learning opportunity and a source of innovation. This is what we promote at Schiller.
Q. What should a university Professor do to motivate their students?
A. The answer is clear: make them the owners of their own learning. It is fundamental that students play an active role in choosing the methodologies that best adapt to their needs, and that they be aware of what they are learning at all times through applied practice and problem-solving. In order to motivate students, a Professor must take the role of their guide, accompanying them in their learning process, providing them with the tools they need to adapt to different learning speeds, and helping them discover and develop their own strengths.
Q. What are the main challenges universities face in today’s context?
A. The main challenge of Universities is adapting to today’s world. Unfortunately, the rigidness of the higher education system and devotion to all that is traditional, and the permanence of archaic governance models do not facilitate innovation or adaptation to change. As in all sectors, education is experiencing an evolutionary process marked by digitalization. Digital content and multiple channels for connectivity at a distance have generated new formats and enriched options, opening an umbrella of educational possibilities, but also where student experience is concerned: from the search of information to enrollment, academic planning, and access to university services. Plainly speaking, universities are still at the beginning of the digital transformation, and yet, students demand the same connectivity, accessibility, and user experience that they receive from other services. In this sense, the situation we are living with Covid has sent a wake-up call to the sector, resulting in investments that would have under normal circumstances taken years to see happen. The challenge here, in addition to the technology itself, lies in the upskilling of faculty.
Educational methodologies must adapt to these new tools, but provide our students with magnificent learning opportunities. On the other hand, access to knowledge has become democratized. Universities are no longer the sole owners of knowledge that can only be transferred within the confines of the classroom. In fact, technological advances allow for much of the content taught to become obsolete in relatively little time. The needs of our students have changed. So we must change from being mere transmitters of information to guides throughout their process of learning, not only where acquiring knowledge is concerned, but also in the skills and competencies that ensure their personal and professional growth and that are demanded by today’s workplace: critical thinking, creativity, leadership, adaptability to change, problem-solving, decision-making, etc. To do so, it is necessary to break the barriers between disciplines and traditional areas of knowledge, originally organized artificially into silos by university departments or faculties. Today, organizations face challenges that require a holistic approach to problems, integrating technical knowledge that is multidisciplinary as well as analytical capabilities, emotional intelligence and communication skills.
We must change from being mere transmitters of information, to guides throughout their process of learning
More and more we are seeing how professionals return to the university in search of Graduate programs that will update their technical knowledge, but above all, that will fill the gaps in their skills so they may continue to advance professionally. Universities are no longer a place to study a degree that gives you access to a specific profession, but rather have become centers for lifelong learning. It is our responsibility, as universities, to guarantee our students acquire the fundamentals for learning to learn in a transdisciplinary manner. Lastly, universities must not forget that in addition to their educational mission, they fulfill another social objective: the transfer of knowledge gained from academic research. This is the purpose of scientific research.
However, there are disciplines in which knowledge becomes encapsulated, only serving to contribute to rankings thanks to the large number of published articles and not because of their relevance within an industry or real impact in society. The result ends up being that in those places the university does not reach, others emerge that respond better to the needs of society. This is how Business Schools come about and proliferate, as well as consultancy firms, start-ups and new digital formats including large companies that offer educational products and services that accelerate training in areas not covered by universities. Nevertheless, with all that said, we should not see this as a threat, but an opportunity. Nobody has greater capacity to advance the development of knowledge and learning methodologies. It is necessary, nonetheless, to adapt: make technology an ally, break the silos of traditional knowledge areas, modernize governance systems, increase the flexibility of academic models, and build bridges with the real professional world.
The result ends up being that in those places the university does not reach, others emerge that respond better to the needs of society
Q. What advice can you give Spanish students and graduates in the current context of restrictions to mobility and economic paralisis?
A. My advice to students within this context is that they do not accept this as a year lost, but rather take advantage of this time to differentiate themselves upon the eventual return to normality. Education has always been a lever to grow, and it continues to be so in these times of uncertainty. Being ready and being flexible are keys to achieving this in any context, no matter how difficult. At Schiller, flexibility and adapting to the needs of the student is what has always made us stand out. We offer our students the possibility of beginning studies online, enrolling in any month of the year, onsite or online, with the peace of mind of knowing that whenever they wish to change learning formats they may do so without it affecting their progress or the quality of their studies. Today more than ever, this flexibility is of vital importance for students who due to the current situation, have not wanted to or been able to start their studies in September, and are at a point of inflection regarding moving towards a global career.
Q. What do students today look for in university studies? What about the companies and organizations that hire these students when they graduate?
A. I think university students, depending on their age and moment in life, look for different things. Those who are studying at a university for the first time at a young age are usually attracted to areas of studies in line with their likes and interests and value the student experience a university offers in comparison to another university, their university life, study options, studies abroad, or companies where they will be able to do their internships are some of the things they consider. Students doing Master’s degrees or certification programs tend to look for the acquisition of new competencies required by the job market or the possibility of accessing positions of greater relevance within their professional careers.
Having to decide your future at 16 is associated in part to the high dropout rate, and consequently low number of graduates in Spain in comparison with other countries
In the case of companies, as I mentioned before, more and more they are searching for multidisciplinary profiles able to adapt to change and solve problems, who have analytical capabilities, creativity, communication and teamwork skills. Companies today understand that technical knowledge must be updated throughout one’s entire professional life and it is necessary to have an adequate foundation where skills and competencies are concerned, so as to allow for ongoing learning of new knowledge required for the success of the business.