​Purpose-driven higher education must meet the demands of the new revolution

While primarily technological in nature, the Fourth Industrial Revolution exists within the existing paradigms of society and systems and, as such, the technological aspect of this revolution does not stand alone. Rather, it must be considered alongside people, processes and partnerships and recognised for the effect it is having in terms of mobilising economies and societies towards development.

Key to understanding these technological developments and their applications is the integration, convergence and blurring of lines between the physical, digital and biological aspects of life and work. However, against this backdrop of incredibly fast technological development, social infrastructure remains sluggish in adapting to these technological advances.

The same can be said for tertiary education. Despite intensive conversations about student-centred learning, appropriate learning outcomes, lifelong learning and the use of technology, traditional and antiquated learning methodologies persist. This makes it difficult, at best, for higher education institutions to deliver on their evolving responsibility to produce graduates who are fully equipped to function optimally in an environment where the keys to success are an ability to learn continuously, adapt quickly and apply rapid technology changes focused on creativity, problem solving, innovation and appropriate human-centred skills.

This inability to deliver the appropriate higher education outcomes needed by society is placing immense pressure on the tertiary education sector, which now finds itself at something of a tipping point. University business models face massive challenges, costs are rising exponentially, but funding and perceived value is on the decline. The bottom line is that the historical higher education of research and academic teaching, backed by large asset bases and extensive, expensive, back office support is simply no longer viable.

Higher education institutions require a new understanding of the context in which they operate and the model they have to implement in order to ensure their relevance, value and sustainability. Put another way, universities and colleges need to fully understand what their new role is in a changing society, how they should perform that role, and why it is important that they do so.

A key driver of the dramatic changes being experienced by the world’s higher learning institutions is the stellar growth in demand for education that is accessible, democratised and socially relevant. So, while access to higher education has always been considered a human right, the changes in the nature, characteristics and drivers of the global system demand new practices to enable broader participation in different types of learning that achieve entirely new types of learning outcomes.

To this end, it is absolutely imperative that higher education institutions become active partners in the process of managing and addressing the broader changes in the political, economic, social and environmental realms and contribute tangibly to the sustainability and improvement of the human condition.

The obvious question, then, is what should these new generation higher education institutions look like, and what must today’s universities do to reinvent themselves successfully?

For the vast majority of traditional higher education institutions, this process of transformation has to begin with honest introspection and an acceptance that change is essential. Then, the hard process of demolishing age-old ivory towers has to begin in earnest. Barriers to access such as excessive costs, restrictive eligibility criteria and historical elitism must be removed, and concepts such as academic independence and knowledge dictation need to be dissolved. In their place, new generation universities will recognise the need to provide largely unrestricted access to high-quality education for all through a deliberate focus shift to inclusivity and affordability. Research will remain a cornerstone of higher education, but it will have to become far more relevant to society and industry. And these new generation universities will also need to be highly proactive in contributing significantly to economic growth, the reduction of socioeconomic imbalances, and the production of socially-minded future business leaders, entrepreneurs, politicians and civic champions.

At the same time, tomorrow’s higher education institutions will need to ensure their long-term viability, sustainability and growth through a particular focus on quality, personalised education, characterised by extensive curricula that integrate theory and practical application, and delivered at scale through world-class technology.

The benchmark for success in terms of this transformation imperative will be universities that are co-drivers of innovation for the primary purpose of development. They will function in a reciprocal relationship with all other sectors of society and industry and nurture strong, creative partnerships with local communities.

There can be no question that the time has come for urgent conversations and action around reshaping higher education in South Africa, and the world, into this type of adaptable, flexible and relevant model that ensures access to life-long learning opportunities that prepare people to fully and effectively serve society going forward.

As a highly regarded higher education provider and pioneer, with students from 50 countries, Monash South Africa will continue to lead the charge, and is more committed than ever to developing graduates equipped with the knowledge and skills to drive positive global change, shape industry, shape the future and, ultimately, help shape the world.

Professor Alwyn Louw is president and academic president of Monash South Africa

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