Without a radical change to approach, universities will not be in a position to facilitate the appropriate and effective learning experience that their students need in order to survive and thrive


In order to be relevant and effective within the evolved systems and altered social context brought about by the flux of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the university of the future will have to give far greater consideration to the role it has to play in this new world. It will also have to give due cognisance to the context within which its students need to apply the knowledge and skills it imparts to them. This requires a much deeper interpretation of the diverse profile of those students and a very clear understanding of their aspirations once they have graduated. The ability of universities to define and understand future challenges will without a doubt be the reason for failure to adapt.

Ultimately, higher education institutions now have to go back to the drawing board in terms of their approach to what they do and how they do it. In most cases, this demands a willingness by universities and colleges to completely transform not just the type of learning they facilitate, but also the way in which they impart that learning and, in fact, the entire environment in which teaching and learning take place.

For most universities, this transformation can only begin to take place if it is driven by a much clearer perspective on where they want—and need—to fit into the global higher education and social landscape. It will also require a greater focus by every higher institution on the core activities it needs to perform within its particular areas of specialisation, and be mindful of ‘new to the world’ requirements and needs in order to deliver on the responsibilities that this more focused approach places on it.

The main challenge that will face the majority of universities that recognise the need to undergo such a transformation will be that doing so will demand a fundamental change to their business model and culture, as well as the comprehensive redefinition of their value proposition and role in the educational value chain. It seems that the all-inclusive mission will not service the challenges.

Of course, this type of cultural transformation and strategic repositioning is never easily achieved. It’s a well-documented fact that organisations and their stakeholders fear change and have a tendency to resist it—especially if the future is unknown. Universities are no different.

The university transformation from the bureaucratic behemoths that most of them have become more specialised, agile and contextually relevant learning facilitators will undoubtedly be difficult, even painful. After all, even an environment created on a foundation of rigid policies, offering a measure of protection and a sense of security to those who operate within it, will eventually become uncomfortable if it does not transform to align with the current day and age.

Generative learning focussing on the strategic transformational change that changes the status quo in shaping the future is certain to create discomfort, insecurity and even fear amongst those who have come to accept policy, tradition and academic autonomy as the norm. This does not imply a normless environment, but a reconsidering of the definition of an enabling environment for learning, rather than democratic absolutism and traditional practice.

It isn’t just university staff who will struggle with the changes that must take place. The accepted and traditional ‘definitions’ of what a university is and does mean it’s likely that even students will feel the need to resist the changes that higher education institutions must make in order to remain relevant and effective. That’s because most of those students will just have passed through equally traditional primary and secondary education systems, which may not have fully grasped the urgent need to undergo a similar transformation to prepare their learners to function effectively in what is now a vastly different world than the one in which their curricula were originally developed.

Given all these challenges that universities will face in their efforts to build a future-focused innovative culture, many will choose to try to maintain the status quo. But by deliberately choosing not to question their relevance, redefine their roles and restructure their approach to learning, those universities will effectively be condemning their students to a future in which they find it very difficult to achieve their career aspirations and near impossible to be the effective leaders and champions of positive change.

To avoid this disappointing scenario, in an effort to overcome the taken-for-granted aspects, it is now absolutely essential that all higher education institutions ask themselves a number of difficult questions, such as:

  • Is our curriculum truly preparing our students to thrive in a changed and changing world?
  • Do we understand the social context within which we operate, and are we committed to being truly effective in our role within that context?
  • Do we understand the readiness and aspirations of our students?
  • Is innovation at the core of what we do and how we do it? Do we have an appropriate business model to declare the type of learning environment and experience intended?
  • To what extent do our employees within and specific to our institution have the ability to create and facilitate real change?
  • Are we willing to transform, or do we fear change to the extent that we choose comfort over effectiveness?

Unless we as institutions of higher learning are prepared to ask ourselves these questions, answer them honestly and use them as a catalyst to begin the process of sustainably transforming ourselves, we are doomed to a future of increasing irrelevance in the world and are guilty of setting up students for failure.

Given the privilege and responsibility we have as universities to mould the future leaders who will shape our world for the better, failing to do whatever it takes to be able to fully leverage that opportunity would be nothing short of a travesty. 

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Issue 58