/ 28 June 2019

Higher education institutions need to face up to the future

(John McCann/M&G)
unemployment among South Africans with advanced qualifications is rapidly rising, leading to an eroding unemployment gap between this category and other categories. (John McCann/M&G)


In a knowledge society, 85% of all assets are intangible; about 70% of these assets are resident in people. People have moved to centre stage because they unlock value and create wealth through their creativity, ingenuity and innovation.

Organisations, nations and societies that have the right people at the right time in the right place — able, willing and allowed to contribute — will dominate the future.

Emerging new world order

A fundamental, radical transformation is occurring through four forces of change, bringing about a new world order:

  • Qualitatively, a world of increasing variety, interdependency, complexity, change, ambiguity and seamlessness (boundarylessness);
  • Exponentially accelerating technological innovation, encapsulated in the term “fourth industrial revolution”, the features of which are digitisation, interconnectivity, virtualisation, automation and smart;
  • The adoption of the core value of sustainability through stewardship, leaving the world a better place for future generations; andIn the centre of the above three forces of change, an extending, increasingly diverse range of activist stakeholders with shifting interests, demands and expectations — most frequently in conflict and demanding trade-offs — whose voices are amplified by social media, enabling them to rapidly mobilise around issues, nationally and globally.

Infusing the above four forces of change, and feeding back into them, is the “maths” of the emerging new world order: “Intelligently respond twice as fast, deliver twice as much, at twice the speed, at half the cost, within half the accepted product and service lifespan, and doing all of this on a continuous, sustainable basis: everywhere, anytime, anyone, anyhow, anything.”

This maths is fuelled by the competitive equation of this order: the continuous delivery of innovative, customised, high-quality products and services, simultaneously bringing costs down, and getting products and services more quickly to markets, from conception to commercialisation.

Relentless innovation

The emerging new world order has invoked the imperative of relentless, disruptive (even destructive) innovation as the strategic success factor for organisations, nations and societies wanting to remain ready for the future — not just to survive, but to thrive.

In turn, the relentless innovation has invoked the necessity for continuous deep relearning, learning and unlearning by all. If individuals, organisations and societies do not learn and re-invent themselves faster than the rate of change, they will not have a future, because they have become obsolete.

Challenge for higher education

Higher education institutions play probably the most critical role in providing organisations, nations and society with the right people at the right time, in the right place, with the right capabilities to unlock value and create wealth, the critical driver of the knowledge society. The relentless innovation, requiring continuous learning, makes this expected role of these institutions even more critical.

They will have to re-invent themselves if they wish to remain relevant. But, at best, higher education institutions are rapidly becoming mismatched in the new world order. At worst, they are becoming and are seen to be obsolete.

In their confusion about how to address these forces of change, the institutions are responding inappropriately, by strengthening and maintaining the status quo through, for example, standardisation, centralisation and control. The forces of change instead demand shifts of 180˚ and different responses: flexibility, risk taking, resilience, continual innovation and high levels of empowerment at all levels.

Typically, the leaders of higher education institutions are appointed into such positions because of their outstanding academic track records, not because of their proven ability to lead a complex organisation battered by the forces of change. At most, these leaders manifest a transactional leadership stance: keeping the bureaucratic, administrative machine working efficiently and smoothly. These leaders are expected to be status quo optimisers, adverse to the radical change required by the new world order.

In instances where leaders claim to have adopted a transformational stance — the pursuit of an inspiring vision affecting radical change — nothing fundamentally changes in the institution. The overpowering institutional inertia and ruling hegemony of past traditions and internal academic coalitions — “we have always done it this way” — are overwhelmingly powerful.

Graduates and research

The exclusively claimed offering of higher education institutions is graduates and research. The institutions are under threat in terms of their conventional “inside-out, we-know-best” programmatic offering and mind-set. Inside their cozy ivory towers, academics decide what programmes must look like. Little attention is given to the externally required graduate.

The World Economic Forum predicts that “by 2020 more than a third of the desired core skill sets of most occupations will comprise skills that are not yet even considered crucial to the job today”. Professions will change more in the next 25 years than in the previous 300 years.

At best, the higher education institutions produce intellectual giants and outstanding, narrow, technical specialists who have little sense of true citizenship, and no strong moral conscience and compass. Business schools have been accused of propagating ideologically inspired, amoral theories that free students from any sense of moral responsibility.

The worldwide 2008 economic crisis can be attributed to the likes of these graduates, who are unethical, greed-driven leaders, managers and specialists. They have no moral conscience regarding the wellbeing of the world economy and society, now and going into the future.

With respect to research offering, higher education institutions have, in their pursuit of creeping up the global university rankings, become increasing imprisoned in their universe, chasing and producing research on topics that bear little relevance to societal needs.

On top of this, the academic integrity and ethos of higher education institutions are eroded through plagiarism, predatory journals, bogus research and fake articles attributable to the “publish or perish” pressure placed on them.

Four examples illustrate the institutions’ growing irrelevancy:

  • It is estimated that by the third year of their undergraduate studies, half of each student’s knowledge, skills and expertise is already outdated;
  • Recipient organisations of graduates claim that it takes graduates at least two to three years to start making a real contribution;
  • At present, 65% of all new knowledge is being generated outside of higher education institutions; and
  • The number of corporate universities — in-house learning academies within these organisations — is predicted to soon exceed formal universities, or may have already.

The Middle Ages

The existing structure of these academic institutions is in direct lineage from the Middle Ages university: a pursuit of the holy grail of siloed, disciplinary specialisation aimed at knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Seeping through the structure is disempowering managerialism and stifling administrative bureaucratisation.

Societal challenges necessitating integrated, holistic solutions and cross-disciplinary, social interventions, able to bring about lasting societal change in step with the new world, are ignored or downplayed by these institutions. Their typical structure is one of centralised command-and-control from an all-knowing top leadership dictating what needs to be done to make the machine work better. Or, at the other extreme, they have a laissez-faire attitude justified on the grounds of the holy grail of academic freedom.

This is in stark contrast to the emerging new world order, which requires real-time, structural qualities such as flexibility, responsiveness and autonomy.

The conventional institution of higher education delivers once-off education “events” that are time- and schedule-bound, tied to classroom locations and characterised by voluminous knowledge dumping. The aim is to make the education factory mass-produce cloned graduates who meet internally specified criteria that are tied to internally determined programme requirements. The concurrent massification of education has worsened this dynamic. Yet, the new world order demands just-in-time, time-space-free, immediately relevant knowledge dissemination enabled by a continual, seamless, two-way movement between theory and practice.

Reinvention guidelines

These 10 guidelines are suggested so that higher education institutions become architects of their own future:

  • Adopt a future-centric mindset in the institution. A desired future in 10 or more years’ time is first imagined and then actualised in the present. It has been said that the best way to predict the future is to create it.
  • Design a multistakeholder model to bring together all the voices in the institution’s sphere of action and influence. All stakeholders have to become genuine participants in the narratives about the who and what of the institution — what it stands for, what its aspirations are, how they will be achieved and the difference it wishes to make.
  • Frame the envisioned legacy of the institution in terms of a sustainable stewardship and value-orientation framework and translate it into its strategic intent. Such a societally entrenched focus will give the institutions real purpose and meaning and a grounded spirituality that will transform it into a caring organisation that will serve its communities, nation and society at large.
  • Matched to its strategic intent, redesign the institution into an outside-in, high performance, high engagement, high responsibility organisation. Such an institution will be able to deliver responsive, evidence-based, holistic, multidisciplinary answers and solutions to society’s sustainability problems.

Consider deconstructing the university into two broad types of academic units, each overseen by their own advisory boards, comprising trend-setting, external experts and stakeholders.

(a) Sets of domain-related undergraduate departments (up to honours). These departments develop portfolios of technical specialists able to deliver integrated solutions in a team setting, across the total value chain of their respective disciplines; and

(b) Multidisciplinary graduate schools (master’s and doctoral graduates, with research programmes). Each school focuses on a single sustainability issue as derived from the institution’s strategic intent. Each school would deliver graduates who, from a sustainability perspective, are able to socially contribute systemically at a strategic-tactical level in their employing organisations.

  • People are key to the academic contribution, reputation and standing of a higher education institution. Future-referenced, holistic, integrated profiles have to be developed of the future-fit people (leaders, academics, support staff) the institution wishes to develop in five to 10 years, as derived from, and aligned to, its chosen strategic intent and organisational design. This institutional people profile must cover not only intellectual abilities but also desired personal attributes, values, attitudes and style of conduct.
  • From an outside-in vantage point, craft a contextually matched, holistic, integrated and future-referenced profile of the well-rounded graduate needed in five to 10 years’ time. Well-rounded means a graduate who is not solely equipped with intellectual or specialist capabilities, but a person with the right mindset, personal attributes, values, attitudes and styles of conduct, guided by a moral conscience. Against this desired profile, in conjunction with stakeholders, develop outside-in academic programmes relevant to probable futures and able to deliver these future-fit graduates.
  • Design boundary less teaching and learning delivery processes in accordance with the features of the fourth industrial revolution — digitisation, interconnectivity, virtualisation, automation and smart. Ensure that the design of delivery processes resonate with the profile of the student of the future as digital natives. For example, offer all course material and assessments online, though with a human touch — e-chat rooms and online mentoring and tutoring. There is no classroom teaching of content; face-to-face classroom interaction is for the sole purpose of assessing students’ ability to apply the online course material in practical, case study situations. Because of the need for continuous learning, just-in-time, life-long learning opportunities and programmes must also be offered — and updated continuously.
  • Complement, perhaps even fully replace, the conventional verification research paradigm of the higher education institution (of painstakingly proving something is true over many years of rigorous hypotheses testing, before accepting it) with a falsification research paradigm (accept that a theory is true and use it, until evidence to the contrary surfaces during its application, requiring its adaptation). The pace of change in the new order has become too rapid for the former paradigm to deliver research-based evidence quickly enough for the speed at which the world is moving.
  • Reinvent the institution’s core value-generation logic through strong strategic partnering worldwide in the higher education sector to extend capabilities, opportunities, funding and resources, especially at graduate school level.
  • Be an intelligent university, capacitated to gain a head start on the hyper-turbulence and hyper-fluidity of the new world order. Turn data through decision-making algorithms into real-time, outside-in intelligence to be used to direct and guide in-time, validated, predictive thinking, decisions and actions. In this way empower the institution to be agile, focused and responsive to the future as it unfolds in real time.

Theo H Veldsman is a psychologist and a professor at the University of Johannesburg and the University of Stellenbosch Business School