Economists and bankers one day; university vice-chancellors the next! Life is never dull in the world of corporate philosophy. Especially when traditional belief systems deserve a good shake up. 

Universities have endured for centuries. Why should they need to change today? This was the question put to me just last week by the vice chancellor (research) of one of Asia’s top-ranking business schools. After drawing in my breath sharply in a credible simulation of astonishment, my answer went roughly as follows…

We are entering a period of turbulence that is going to impact almost everyone on this planet. The world is out of balance. Among other factors too complex to go into here, the extraordinary dynamism arising from the convergence of scientific discoveries together with the high-tech enabling of globalisation in its current phase on one hand, and potentially catastrophic trends on the other, are propelling us towards a great societal transition. A transition in which we are going to have to redesign the entire material basis of our civilisation. 

What is more, the rate of change, of both human advancement and planetary degradation, for these are the issues at stake, appears to be accelerating exponentially. Unlike previous human revolutions, which took many decades to embed new patterns of production and consumption, this one will take possibly 10 to 15 years to change much of what we do and how we do it. 

Meanwhile, issues like climate change, the rising price of food, the lack of water and energy, global pandemics and new epidemics that are rarely mentioned in the press (like the alarming incidence of autoimmune diseases, for example) are dangerously close to spinning out of our control, providing further impetus for societal change on an unprecedented scale.

Some signs of this are already evident. In terms of the global economy we have started the evolutionary shift from an ancient industreality (dominated by an Anglo Saxon legacy of both beneficial and pernicious behaviours) to a profoundly interconnected economy in which, once again, China and India will play dominant roles. 

Capitalism is morphing to accommodate astonishingly turbulent business conditions. Political agendas are becoming more universally inclusive. So too is human consciousness. Today we are much more inclined to think of ourselves as a whole earth community inhabiting a fragile planet whose very life force is being suffocated by profligate practices we must change. Meanwhile the nation state is teetering on the brink of irrelevancy while we continue to allow the malignant force of organised religion to cause unnecessary conflict, fear and distress.

But other factors, too, including breakthroughs in cognitive brain science, genomic drugs that amplify human intelligence and other neurological enhancements, are also altering how we will learn to adapt to these new realities. In fact the ability to continuously adapt has become critical for everyone on the planet, including businesses and, by implication, institutions of learning.

Since the invention of the modern university in the 12th century, higher education institutions have always responded to fundamental changes in society. The forces for change have always emerged from society – that is from outside, not from within, the walls of academia. In fact the university was simply a different way of engaging with the world. 

Down through the ages, the dominance of certain disciplines – theology, classics, humanities and more recently science – has followed profound changes in society. Today’s transition will lead, as before, to a learning revolution. But whereas past learning revolutions resulted in a change of disciplinary focus, the next learning revolution will result in profound changes in focus, direction and delivery of an ever-changing curriculum.  

The unified national systems in the higher education sectors of many countries encourages universities to behave as if they are still living in the 19th century. They are distinctive for their uniformity and copycat policies. Yet in so many recent reports purporting to examine the health of this sector over the years, most employers are dissatisfied with university graduates claiming they are not imaginative or original thinkers nor can they reason with any logical consistency. They can remember facts. But facts go rapidly out of date. 

If businesses behave this way they go out of business. To all intents and purposes, if colleges and universities refuse to examine how they might need to operate in a world of enabling technologies and of systemic complexity (in order to reinvent themselves) they will lose control and influence over higher learning. They may well lose their niche as an industry.  

Many universities have already lost the plot. Higher loads of bureaucratic trivia have stimulated a brain-drain that is unstoppable in some countries. In the West, economic rationalists have targeted extensive cost cutting which has led to depleted resources and a further exodus of talent. One might have thought that, in these circumstances, it would be wise to position oneself for change.

The global information economy puts a premium on intellectual capital – increasing pressure to remain at the forefront of knowledge creation and commercialisation. This requires life-long learning and the corresponding rise in the use of continuing education and professional development.  Universities need to develop a raft of new policies that align with this and other real world trends. Only then will they be in a position to reframe their purpose. 

The most obvious of these reflections might include the following topics:

COST VERSUS VALUE

There is a growing belief in some quarters that public higher education is taking too big a bite out of state budgets. Increasingly technology will be seen as a vehicle for reducing the costs of learning. Internet-based programs offer the possibility of customised learning anywhere and at any time of the day or night, thus threatening more traditional methods of instruction. Distance learning is being driven by changing demographics. The fastest growing group attending higher education in the past 20 years are working, part time, females over 25 years old. This group want to increase their salaries and advance their careers. They are prime candidates for education delivered to their homes and offices. The pervasiveness of web-based, internet technologies will increasingly add momentum to distance learning with the capacity to reach previously unimaginable numbers globally. But attitudes will need to change. Costs, too, will need to tumble through, for example, innovative delivery strategies.

REMAINING RELEVANT

Many people in the teaching profession automatically assume that higher education has a pivotal role to play in future societal development. I am not so sure – unless there are unique and compelling reasons for their existence. The modern university has adapted at various times to respond to societal change. These changes have depended upon changes in the contextual environment for this is where the seeds of the future are sown. But an invention is just that. It does not necessarily persist. Arrogance has written off entire industries in the past while new ones have constantly emerged. Higher education will need to become more relevant, more aligned with reality and more strategically focused if it hopes to have an industry to shape in tomorrow’s world.

VIABILITY

The ivory tower is an unfortunate metaphor in a world where relationships matter more and more. The standard model of university higher education is no longer viable. Increasing competition (also from new competitors) coupled with less public funding; increasing tensions and dilemmas to manage (as between teaching and research, academics and administrators, for example); slowness to change due to the inertia in the system; and an increase in demand for university places coupled with fewer staff to cope with this teaching load, all indicate a model that is unsustainable. The struggle to reconcile internal values, cultures and aspirations with the very different modes of operation needed to meet new and demanding student expectations requires a move from a focus on individual academic competence to a university-wide common purpose and strategic framework – and then beyond to global alliances and partnerships.

TECHNOLOGIES

When technologies shift, knowledge monopolies crumble. Is it possible that academics and academic work will not continue to be the primary function and focus of the future university? Deciding what are core and non-core activities will be crucial in determining the future role of teachers, just as has been the case in the nursing profession, for example. Project work (rather than ongoing tenure) will likely assume greater significance. And as new forms of contractual arrangements emerge many universities may simply become brokers in globally distributed knowledge systems. Even in the worst case scenarios academic work will need to be re-designed to take into account pressures regarding numbers and delivery. It is quite possible that links, relationships with industry, research and technological delivery systems may become the dominant foci for university talent in the future.

INTEGRAL KNOWLEDGE

Original ideas often come from reassembling knowledge in new ways. In the internet era, marshalling information is no longer enough to constitute learning. It’s what you do with this information that counts. That is why the humanities are more relevant than ever. Subjects like philosophy, history and literature can teach us how to interpret information and how to argue a point of view. That kind of learning is essential for innovation and for entrepreneurship. Music teaches valuable lessons about time and space. Similarly, visual thinking is critical to using computers and to manipulating images across multiple dimensions. It is a sad indictment of many universities that they do not appreciate the power of integral practice and are still caught up in a time warp where discrete disciplines (typically vocationally focused) rule.

FIRING CUSTOMERS

The financial survival of educational institutions and the growing need for continuous, lifelong learning, demand that universities become more like clubs that extend membership over a lifetime. Think about it. Higher learning is the only business that has a ceremony for firing its customers. Colleges spend thousands of dollars recruiting students and then, after three, four or five years, these same colleges make students dress up in a gown, march them across a platform in full public view, and then ritually fire them! Now imagine an MBA program that saw the value of its customers as extending far beyond the years that they spent on a campus.  Instead of firing people after a few years, such a program would shift its emphasis away from graduation to lifelong learning through membership of the institution. They would remain members as long as they undertook courses, whether those courses were conducted online or on campus. The goal would be to keep members over the life cycle of their careers – and even into post-retirement. Learning would be something that was continuous. There is no doubt educational institutions that survive the new economy will move from the industrial age “event” model to a model that turns students into members of a network – a network that keeps them engaged over the course of their life.  

CORPORATE LINKS

Corporations are customers too. They are now demanding executive education that is much more action-orientated. They want programs that change individuals as well as the enterprise. Real-life issues and dilemmas now become the material for learning in real time. In this context staff become consultants to each other. And now that technology allows us to extend learning into the period after people leave campus we can also tap into communities of interest and continue the dialogue created in sessions. This can be used as an open source research lab that keeps everyone abreast of what is working and what is not working. Obviously the new ground rules for working in partnership with business still need to be established and constantly refined. This will require universities to review their traditional roles of research, teaching and service – and the interconnections between these, previously understood to be inextricably intertwined.

LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS

Education will never look the same as it once did. Learning just doesn’t sink in when you cut it up into small bites. Today it has to be a continuous and compelling engagement with life. Levi Strauss was telling its managers that they needed to be different – a new kind of manager, responsible for ensuring that learning was happening. But their training continued to occur inside the same old windowless hotel rooms. Naturally, attendance dropped off. Until, that is, the company shifted is business model to become a brand management organization. Training sessions were shifted to new environments like art galleries, nightclubs, and other venues that were right in the center of the consumer marketplace. Facilitators gave cameras to Levi Strauss employees and told them to find examples of brand equity being built or destroyed, to talk to consumers about products, and to bring all of that information back to the group. If you are going to be consumer-focused you have to do it in a consumer-focused way. The learning environment has to reflect the company’s public messages, strategic direction and identity, and culture.   

DEMOCRACY

Ultimately, you would have to think, e-learning must change democracy. The Internet has already brought democracy to education. Access is available anywhere, costs are tumbling, place and time are not important any more. The only resistance is cultural opposition to learning online instead of on campus. Much of this opposition comes from established educators, though their monopoly is crumbling. But then the question is, What does the university become?  

I am only really scratching the surface here of why change is inevitable in the higher education sector. We have not even looked at global issues like climate change, for example, and how new subjects must enter the curriculum sooner rather than later. 

Even so, I have no doubt the higher education sector must restructure from first principles. Distinctiveness, not conformity, needs to emerge. Then the willingness and ability to relinquish autonomy in order to become part of an expansive global learning network ( a virtuous investment) will also be crucial. 

Possibly the biggest challenge in all of this will be in universities choosing whether they remain discrete, self-governing entities or opt to become specialist hubs in vast learning networks spanning the globe. In both contexts, academics must become something else rather than just transmitters of knowledge. In order to facilitate learning they will need to develop new skills – especially in terms of flexibility, relationship management, communications and creativity. They will also need to become better skilled at using technology. The biggest stumbling block in that regard is not in the learning but in how teachers apply their learning effectively.

Another critical challenge will stem from a need to manage the diverse systems of alliances and partnerships implied by such global learning networks; the kind of relationships inherent in the linking of distribution and administrative channels of venture capitalists with technical providers in universities, for example. Managing the interaction between the content expert, the packaging expert and the distributor will be a key to success as it requires an administrative system that can work worldwide for both faculty and students.

As we work with new interactive technologies, and individually enhanced intelligence, learning will continue its journey of transformation from knowledge as matter to knowing as process. 

In our industreality the conventional wisdom was that content was King. In the connected economy, there is a realization that context is everything. 

Always-on internet technologies (the next generation) facilitate learning to occur invisibly and automatically as it melds with doing. That is a big shift from the days when educators packaged materials and then funneled these into the heads of learners. The trouble with that system was that, while students learned a whole raft of facts and lots of theory, they ended up with very little sense of themselves as doing what they were learning about – or becoming different people in the process. In other words there was a chasm between personal identity and personal knowledge.  The trouble with the future system is it raises the question yet again, Whither the University?