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Message from Morsing Re-thinking the role of higher education: balancing ‘Bildung’ and ‘Ausbildung’*
05 August, 2020 New York, United States

Re-thinking the role of higher education: balancing ‘Bildung’ and ‘Ausbildung’*

In a world that is searching for how to recover better and a university system that is severely challenged in a global pandemic, now seems to be a good moment to re-think the purpose of the “traditional” University. How can we educate responsible leaders that have the skills and the mindset to address urgent problems of climate change, rising inequality and disregard for human rights? It is often said that we already have the technologies and the skillset (i.e. via the ‘Ausbildung’) needed to solve these global challenges but we have not yet the global governance structures and the mindset (i.e. the Bildung) that enable us to actually do it. How do we develop educational programs and systems that enable a bridging of skillset and mindset to advance responsible leaders?

While much focus is rightly oriented to educating for an unknown future, sometimes we can also find inspiration in ideals from the past. One example of a university ideal has for long been the Humboldtian model of higher education, with its central notions of ‘Bildung’ and ‘Ausbildung’ to emphasize the dual role of higher education. The noble idea is to educate students to become world citizens with a holistic outlook, who are autonomous individuals developing their own reasoning powers to decide between right and wrong (Bildung), while at the same time providing them with more specific professional skills required through schooling (Ausbildung).

“There are undeniably certain kinds of knowledge that must be of a general nature and, more importantly, a certain cultivation of the mind and character that nobody can afford to be without. People obviously cannot be good craftworkers, merchants, soldiers or businessmen unless, regardless of their occupation, they are good, upstanding and – according to their condition – well-informed human beings and citizens. If this basis is laid through schooling, vocational skills are easily acquired later on, and a person is always free to move from one occupation to another, as so often happens in life.” (quoted in Profiles of educators: Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835) by Karl-Heinz Günther (1988), doi:10.1007/BF02192965)

This noble aim seems of significant relevance for the Sustainable Development Goals. To address complex global challenges, there is a need for responsible managers to have not only the right professional toolkit but also to be able to engage in a systems-thinking mindset that can put together pieces in novel ways with a regard for longterm development.

In a pandemic-struck world with an alarming rise in unemployment, today, many students are looking to develop a professional skillset that can provide them with a job despite the circumstances. This has brought a renewed demand for ‘Ausbildung’.

Only a few months into the pandemic, business is already offering a helping hand to educate students with relevant skillsets to enter professional jobs. At a fast pace, a number of companies are developing their own university-equivalent educational programs. Google is now offering a new professional career certificate on digital skills that can be completed within six months at the cost of a monthly fee of USD 49. Prior experience and higher education are not prerequisites, and Google hiring managers say they will treat the program as equivalent to four-year degrees and consider favorably their students for the future workforce. LinkedIn, Microsoft and National Retail Federation (NRF) have similar low-cost educational offerings, and the message is clear: the lack of a university degree is no longer the obstacle to a skilled job. Business is offering a relevant and inexpensive education option to prepare students for an ever-transforming digital job market that also promises high economic opportunities.

This is a promising development for youth and prospective students and will allow for low-income populations and minority groups who may have found access to university programs difficult for a number of reasons.

However, it is important to understand how the focus in these educational programs appears to be specifically on Ausbildung. These programs will deliver focused training for specific types of jobs. This is good news, but there’s a caveat. These programs are not designed to educate global citizens. For this purpose, we look to the Management School and the University. We need management schools to engage in educating students who are able to embrace a broad multi-perspective both on the organization as a whole and on the role of the organization in society. Management schools play an urgent role in developing new ways of engaging students in rethinking the social impact of the processes, products and services delivered by market actors, and importantly, to think of themselves as change agents for longterm sustainable development. Management schools need to continuously redefine and nurture their expertise on Bildung to educate world citizens, who will understand how to integrate the Sustainable Development Goals into their daily decision-making.

So, one central question lingers: how can management schools find the right balance between Bildung and Ausbildung to develop responsible leaders? This is not a trivial question.

Warm regards,

Mette Morsing


* Ausbildung refers to the role of higher education to educate and train students in specific professional skills, whereas Bildung refers to education and training of students to become autonomous individuals with a world citizen mindset.

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