The Vice Chancellor’s Challenge

Universities have endured for centuries. Why should they need to change today? This was the question put to me just last month 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 bewilderment, my very blunt answer was an impulsive precis of just two propositions:

  1. The context for how we share our lives together on this planet has plunged inexorably into a state of profound uncertainty, mostly from the exponential rate of transformational change globally in terms of economics, geopolitics, and converging technologies.

When our most fundamental beliefs, relationships and technologies shift to such an extent, knowledge monopolies crumble. Everyone goes back to zero as a new paradigm, with new possibilities, emerges. Thus….

  1. Between now and 2030 we will be in a position to (re)design humans and the human experience in ways that were never previously possible. Established institutions, even the most venerable, must adapt or perish.

The First Riposte — Context

A decade of turbulence that is going to disrupt almost everything we do on this planet is imminent. Commoditized innovation, arising from the convergence of new scientific discoveries, digitalization, and an unbridled cycle of covetousness and consumption on one hand, and potentially catastrophic impacts emanating from the same sources on the other, are propelling us towards an unstoppable societal transition. This will be a transition of such magnitude that we will need to redesign the entire material basis of our civilization, or possibly perish as a consequence of our unwillingness to do that.

What is more the rate of change, of both human advancement and degradation of the planet, for these are the real issues at stake, appears to be accelerating exponentially. Unlike previous human transitions, where many decades were needed to embed new patterns of production, this one will take a decade to change most of what we do and how we do it.

Meanwhile, issues like global heating, food, water and energy security, the threat of a new arms race, the automation of work, and new epidemics that are rarely mentioned in the press, like the alarming incidence of autoimmune diseases and diabetes, impart further impetus for societal change on an unparalleled scale.

We are living in a space between two worlds. In terms of the global economy we are engaged in the multi-faceted shift from a smokestack industreality, symbolized by an Anglo-Saxon legacy of both beneficial and pernicious behaviours, to an interwoven ecoreality — typified by pluriversal instantaneity, or the ability to interact with almost anyone, anywhere, for any purpose. The main features of this transformation over the next decade, as distinct from the flow of continuous disruption from various sources, will be a rapid decarbonization of the means of production, and the clear supremacy of advanced autonomous technologies in all aspects of our lives.

Apart from the shock of the new, which must never be underestimated, most extrinsic change is likely to be beneficial — particularly in fields like medicine (e.g. gene editing and telemedicine), energy and transport (e.g. solar and hydrogen), construction (e.g. 3D printing of buildings) and information (e.g. decentralized apps), for example.

But there are a few, fairly ingrained activities, where psychological adjustment to a new social metabolism will be much more difficult. In particular, there are two pernicious cycles, hidden in full view if we care to open our eyes, that are destructive to human health and social well-being. The fact that we have become compliant consumers of both is unsettling:

1. The economy must morph so as to resolve its dysfunctional inadequacies, a global population fast approaching eight billion, and the capture of all kinds of labour by intelligent machines. Manufacturers are struggling to find new ways to ramp up the cycle of desire and consumption, on which we are dependent — mostly via targeted propaganda and data-driven marketing. Growth, economic and demographic, the cradle of their success, and the means for their endurance, is humanity’s coffin. We know that continued growth is impossible — although most liberal economists will no doubt disagree. Nevertheless, as the need to reduce our social metabolism gains greater credence, we will need to negotiate a balance between societies where growth has led to overindulgence and obesity, resulting in a rise in diabetes and cardiovascular disease, for example, and those where the increased growth of essential goods like nutritious food and clean water, for example, can help to avoid malnutrition, poverty and homelessness.

2. Levels of discontent and anxiety are increasing as a direct result of this cycle of desire and consumption. As a consequence the state is resorting to new ways of manufacturing both gratification and consent. Some are choosing to do this in a heavy handed manner. But if political agendas become more authoritarian, the state is obliged to defend its legitimacy by spending more on the military, police, and prisons, and less on social programs and infrastructure. This leads to greater disquiet, citizen outrage, and mass civil disobedience which, in turn, is followed by predictable responses from officialdom — an escalation in the use of force and of instruments of suppression. As a cycle of public anger and state control begins to take root, the cycle of desire and consumption becomes a palliative for citizens in anguish for a future they do not want but in which they feel increasingly trapped.

Few people care to make the connections between these two viruses. However there are now signs of a growing awareness that they are inherently detrimental to our sanity and wellbeing. Although there are as yet few signs of a much needed collective leap of consciousness, more people are inclined to view our species as a single human family, inhabiting a fragile planet, whose very life force is being suffocated by the profligate procedures we ordained, and to which we now submit.

So it is that capitalism, at war with itself, has stalled, while state politicians, hovering on the brink of irrelevancy, strut the global stage as if evolution depended entirely upon their banal presence. Ordinary people, meanwhile, know that something is seriously wrong, even if they cannot quite put their finger on what that might be. Which is why so much anxiety and despair hangs in the air.

The failure of capitalism to remain non-predacious, and the fiasco of governments doing nothing more than continuously patching up the present, means we could be facing a ruinous few years before these matters can be resolved.

Some nations, ranging from the US to Venezuela, Ethiopia, and possibly Hong Kong, are already teetering on the brink of civil war. Others, like the Ukraine and possibly even Thailand could follow. Meanwhile powerful, resourceful, business elites are seizing upon the ambiguity and hesitation to help shape a world in which we are little more than serfs to their whims. Appropriating the in-vogue language of social impacts, sustainability, and conscious capitalism, this will be a world in which a few non-elected oligarchs own and control almost every aspect of who we are, what we do, and how we do it. If they get their way!

Of course situations involving large numbers of people are never that straightforward. Revolutions and most massive changes in our world occur through unforeseen twists of fate rather than any pre-meditated evil scheming. To suggest otherwise is to fall headlong into the trap of seeing conspiracy theories everywhere we look. Tiny factors, too, that in different circumstances would be marginalia to the main game, can often take us by surprise, causing us to review underlying assumptions and confusing any sense of coherent development.

Public responses to increasingly authoritarian edicts are also capricious — depending on whether they are interpreted as threats, or possibly an assault on an individual’s right to decide such things, which is overwhelmingly the case in modern societies, or seen as welcome advances in the provision of a better quality of life for more citizens.

In both cases breakthroughs in cognitive brain science, genomic drugs that amplify human intelligence, and neurological enhancements, could well alter how we learn to respond to new realities — especially as the ability to continuously adapt has become critical for everyone on the planet, including business and, by implication, institutions of learning. So, after that rant on the range of possible futures we are facing, let me return to the Vice Chancellor’s question.

The Second Riposte — Challenges

The Situation Now

Since the invention of the modern university, in or around the 12th century, institutions of higher education have invariably responded to fundamental changes in society. The forces for change, however, have always emerged from outside, not from within, the halls of the academy. To some extent, the idea of the university, and more recently the entire higher education sector, was simply another way of engaging with the world.

Down through the ages, the dominance of certain disciplines, at first theology, then classics and the humanities, followed by science, and more recently the STEM suite, shadowed changing social needs. The transition we are facing today is something of a misnomer. It is more of a revolution in fact. For whereas past changes resulted in a shift of focus, the key issues confronting the higher education sector today will most likely result in a profound change of direction.

Today it is possible to learn almost anything online, mostly for free — even some of the most advanced practical skills. We no longer need colleges of higher education to be able to learn. Expertise and talent will always be in demand for those wanting a decent job in an automated world, just as they are today. But there are better ways of proving aptitude than sitting in a lecture theatre for four years, often at considerable cost, and coming away with credentials confirming only that you have heard the same data as your peers, and have reached a similar level of comprehension.

Even so, this idea that a university education is no longer needed is a difficult concept to grasp at a time when a college degree is mandatory for most executive positions and, on average, brings an additional $30,000 in salary each year than a high school education. So the proposition flies in the face of convention. But not common sense.

Unified national systems in the higher education sectors of many countries encourage universities to behave as if they are still living in the 19th century — distinctive for their sameness and copycat policies. Yet in so many recent reports purporting to examine the health of this sector over the years, employers have expressed their dissatisfaction with graduates claiming they are not imaginative or inventive, find it almost impossible to construct counter arguments to any Cartesian proposition, are uncomfortable when sharing ideas, and are not good at bringing critical thinking to group endeavours.

They remember facts. But what use is that when facts become obsolete so swiftly and invention and discovery have become far more important? Innovation often comes from reassembling knowledge in novel ways. In the internet age, marshalling facts is no longer sufficient to constitute learning. It is what you can do with this information that counts.

That is why the humanities are more relevant than ever. Philosophy, literature and history illuminate how to interpret information, and how to argue a point of view — the kind of skills so essential for innovation and entrepreneurship. Sound engineering and musical composition alter the plasticity of the brain to think in multiple dimensions. Similarly, the ability to visualize and to make sense of complex patterns, are critical aspects of design, quite apart from being able to appreciate the complex web of life.

Learning is no longer a commodity, but an individually-tailored enterprise in itself. It is this reality that is making the standard model of a university education less applicable. Speeding up that factor is competition, both from established and new competitors, less public funding, increasing tensions to manage between teaching and research, as well as academics and administrators, slowness to adapt due to inertia in the system, and an increase in demand for university places coupled with fewer staff to cope with the teaching load. All of these indicate a model struggling to maintain functionality.

If companies are so lethargic and maladaptive they go bankrupt. To all intents and purposes, if colleges and universities refuse to examine how they will need to operate in a world where enabling technologies of all kinds respond to systemic complexity with little or no input from humans, they too will quickly become redundant.

I think this is already appreciated and increasingly felt. In many respects, the higher education sector is like any other industry facing an existential threat. Grief gives way to denial that it could be happening at all, then a sense of unfairness generating anger, dejection, followed by rounds of futile bargaining aimed at preventing the inevitable, before acceptance finally restores some sense of dignity.

Frankly some universities have already lost the plot — the impact from COVID-19 could be the final straw for some others. Higher loads of bureaucratic trivia have stimulated a brain-drain that is unstoppable in some countries. In others, austerity measures have led to depleted resources and a further exodus of talent. Given these circumstances one might have imagined that it would be wiser and more pragmatic for incumbents to position the sector for change. Not many universities, however, appear to comprehend precisely what they are up against.

Most articles and scholarly theses I have seen regarding the future of universities gloss over, or miss entirely, the obvious point. If our future world has no need for learning as it is currently constructed, then institutions of higher education cannot continue in the role they play today if they are to survive. This is an existential problem. But, like all existential problems, there are solutions — not all of acceptable of course.

The Situation Next

Ultimately, especially with the advent of 5G technology, online and remote learning is about to change just about everything. The internet democratized education. Access is available anywhere. Costs are tumbling. Place and time are no longer important. The only resistance is cultural opposition to learning online instead of on campus. Much of the resistance comes from the intransigence of tenured educators. So then we must ask: What should the university become?

Choices To Be Made

Education will never look the same as it did even 20 years ago. The kind of learning we need today just does not sink in when we compartmentalise it and cut it up into small bites. Now it has to be a continuous and compelling engagement with life.

The global information economy puts a premium on intellectual capital, increasing the pressure to remain at the forefront of knowledge creation and commercialization. This has very little to do with teaching. It is perfectly reasonable that, should the university endure, conventional teachers and teaching will not continue to be its primary function and focus. On the other hand it does require life-long learning with a corresponding rise in collaborative inquiry, the capacity for deep research, and ongoing professional development.

Mission-critical alliances with industry partners will assume greater significance. So, too, the design of learning experiences. And as knowledge becomes decentralized, and new forms of peer-to-peer networks emerge, colleges may welcome invitations to assume the role of informed brokers in large-scale, globally distributed systems, where inquiry and research are the principal drivers.

Alternatively, the financial survival of educational institutions, plus the growing need for continuous, lifelong learning, might lead to some becoming more like societies or clubs that extend membership over a lifetime. Think about it. Higher learning is the only business today that has a ceremony for firing its well-paying 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 sack them with a standing ovation!

Now imagine programs allowing members to explore diverse themes and activities that remain relevant over the course of a lifetime. Match that with a college that sees the value of its customers as extending far beyond the years they might have spent on a campus and voila! 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.

Students would remain members as long as they undertook activities, or acted as mentors to other members, whether those activities were conducted online or in different physical locations. The imperative would be to keep members over the life cycle of their careers — and even into post-retirement. Learning becomes a continuous experience curated by the college.

Professional Advancement

Corporations are also customers of the higher education sector. Because of the kinds of changes that are transforming business and government agencies today, they are already demanding levels of executive development that are far more engaging and address pertinent issues.

They want programs that change individuals as much as individuals that change their enterprise. Everyday issues and dramas now become the material for learning in real time. In this context staff become consultants and mentors to each other. And now that technology allows us to extend learning into the period after people graduate we can also tap into communities of interest and continue the dialogue created previously.

I well remember, some time ago now, Levi Strauss telling its managers they needed to be different — a new kind of manager, responsible for ensuring that learning happened and that experimentation was radical. But their training continued to occur inside the same old windowless hotel rooms. Naturally, attendance dropped off. Until, that is, the company shifted its business model to become a brand management organization.

Training sessions shifted to novel environments like art galleries, nightclubs, and other venues that were right in the center of the consumer marketplace. Organizers gave cameras to Levi Strauss managers, instructing them to find examples of brand equity being built or destroyed, to talk to customers about their products, and to bring all of that information back to the group. The CEO was clear in his message: If we are going to be customer-focused we have to do it in a customer-focused way, he insisted.

The learning environment in Levi Strauss changed dramatically to messaging, strategic direction, brand identity, and the culture of the enterprise. The same must be true of tomorrow’s colleges.

For most modern educational institutions to survive the 2020s they will need to move from the industrial age “event” to a model that helps their clients to becom members of a learning network. A network that is not constrained by time or discipline, and that keeps them engaged over the course of their lifetime.

But however a college chooses to adapt in order to remain viable, the need for a raft of new strategies that align with these and other real world trends will be critical. Only then will they be in a position to reframe their purpose in alignment with the most profound civilisational transition in our history.

We saw it with gun powder, the printing press, the steam engine, and now the internet. When a life-changing new technology is invented, knowledge monopolies crumble. Everyone goes back to zero. Arrogance (we are too big to fail) as well as nescience (we didn’t see that coming) can complicate that risk, often playing a crucial role in writing off entire industries, with new ones, better fit for purpose, more proficient, nimble and smarter, quickly replacing them. Higher education will need to focus its attention on remaining strategically aligned, sensitive to the most subtle changes, if it is to avoid the ignominy of not even having an industry left to lead in tomorrow’s world.

The immediate challenge faced by all institutions in the higher education sector will be choosing whether to remain discrete, self-governing entities, opting to form specialist hubs in vast learning networks spanning the globe, or create something entirely unique. In every context, though, those involved will need to become something other than mere transmitters of knowledge. In order to facilitate learning they will need to develop new skills — especially in terms of flexibility, relationship facilitation, creativity and communications. They will also need to become highly skilled at partnering with technology. The biggest stumbling block in that regard is not in the learning, but in how those trained as teachers apply their skills effectively.

Another critical challenge stems from a need to manage the wide variety of alliances and partnerships implied by such learning networks, the kind of relations inherent in the linking of venture capitalists with technical providers, 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 effectively for all concerned.

Back To The Future

Universities, while constantly crying poor are, without doubt, among the most asset-rich, powerful, and politically connected institutions in the public sector of many countries. That does not mean they are immune from changes occurring in society. Quite the opposite in fact.

In the long-term the higher education sector will be forced to restructure, and one of the most significant drivers in that respect will come from the experiments in curricula and pedagogy already being conducted by organisations like Avenues: The World School in New York, and Verso International School in Bangkok, for example. Unique in both conception and design, Verso is at the cutting edge of school design and will no doubt inspire a new generation of schools where learning to be agile, creative and adaptive provides the basis for highly customised educational experiences.

When revolutions like this happen it is wise to go back to first principles. In the old industreality, content was king. In the connected economy, there is a realization that context is everything.

As we work with new interactive technologies, and individually enhanced intelligence, learning will continue its journey of transformation — particularly from knowledge as matter to knowing as experience. Distinctiveness, rather than conformity, will emerge naturally. Collaboration and inquiry will delineate its fresh modus operandi. Finally, a willingness to relinquish autonomy, by virtuous investment into the emerging learning ecosystems, will signal the most altruistic act of all in order to remain relevant.

Today’s constant access to the digital world inspires learning to occur impulsively and invisibly as theory melds with praxis. That is a big shift from the days when educators packaged materials and then funneled these into the heads of learners sitting passively in classrooms and lecture theatres. I remember it only too well.

The problem 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 being 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? Does that answer your question Vice Chancellor?

Philosopher-Activist and Executive Director at Centre for the Future