It’s been called “the challenge-driven university” – a new model of higher education that emphasises a different approach to student learning. Traditional methods such as lectures and exams are spurned in favour of team work focused on practical problems, with businesses often sponsoring projects and providing their own instructors.

These institutions, which have popped up around the world over the past 15 years, set out to challenge their students – but at the same time they have thrown down a challenge to traditional higher education methods. Unsurprisingly, many people don’t rate them, considering them as lacking academic rigour and that, ultimately, they are not really universities at all.

A recent article in The Economist examined the rise of these institutions, which have emerged from a concern particularly in US education that modern teaching methods stifle understanding and that schools and universities are failing to spark young people’s curiosity and are repressing creativity. The article notes:

As tuition fees rise, and pricey master’s degrees become more common, students are behaving more like customers. They do not want to sit in 500-seat lecture halls. About 96% of the 27,000 students polled last year by Zogby, a research firm, said they wanted universities to promote an entrepreneurial environment.

Though the line between corporate training and higher education is blurring, for ambitious youngsters choosing a job over a university spot remains rare. But new universities—as well as a few farsighted older ones—are adapting to the changing needs of students and employers.”

The article cites the example of Olin College, an engineering university in Massachusetts, where students complete 20-25 projects, spending around 80 per cent of their time in teams and combine ideas from different disciplines, for example biology and history. Olin’s president argues that such projects strengthen recall and hone communication skills.

According to the report, Olin has received visits from 658 universities from 45 countries keen to learn about its approach. It says the Indian School of Design and Innovation in Mumbai, the Singapore University of Technology and Design, and Pohang University, in South Korea, are using a similar teaching model.

And next year the New Model in Technology & Engineering (NMITE) will open in England, at which lecturers will be hired for their teaching expertise rather than publication records.

Students will need good school-leaving qualifications, but not need to have studied maths or physics. They will have to study arts and social science. Classes will be small (20-30 students), and students will get 3.5 hours of contact time with teachers each day.”

The new institutions, says The Economist, share “an openness to the world beyond the ivory towers”, with students making products for real-world companies such as Kone, Airbus and Philips. As well as businesses, collaborators can include various government agencies.

Critics of the concept are many, pointing out that students do not get to grapple with core concepts such as physics and engineering behind many of their projects, and there are concerns that their teaching approach is not thoroughly effective.

But is there not a place in higher education for different approaches aimed at helping certain students to make the best of their lives?

The Economist article can be read in full here.