Historically and functionally, universities have always occupied an antagonistic position vis-à-vis social developments without simply conforming to them. By generating and transmitting knowledge, universities provide an opportunity to transcend the horizons of everyday theoretical problems occurring in the societies around them.

For a millennium, universities have been considered the main societal hub for knowledge and learning and the basic structures of how universities produce and disseminate knowledge and evaluate students have survived intact through the sweeping societal changes created by technology—the moveable-type printing press, the Industrial Revolution, the telegraph, telephone, radio, television, and computers.

Today, though, universities seem to be as susceptible to technology disruption as other information-centric industries such as the news media, magazines and journals, encyclopaedias, music, movies, and television. The transmission of knowledge does not have to be tethered to a fixed location or campus. The technical affordances of cloud-based computing, digital textbooks, mobile connectivity, high-quality streaming video, and ‘just-in-time’ information gathering have pushed vast amounts of knowledge to the ‘placeless’ Web. This has sparked a robust re-examination of the modern university’s mission and its role within society.

The social realities of the 21st century are being shaped by knowledge-based processes and reflective enlightenment. Society and the economy are concentrating more and more around knowledge. Reflective enlightenment is evolving from the tenet of unchallenged feasibility held by traditional rationalist enlightenment to a questioning of feasibility characteristic of the digital era.

Indeed, universities are being disrupted by a wide variety of social and technological forces. Developments including the globalization of services work, the increasing value of domain expertise, and the rise of online open courses are creating both challenges and opportunities for incumbents as well as new entrants. The unbundling of research, education, content, and certification means that new business models and ways of engaging of students will be at the heart of a prosperous future for universities. With the world in a state of major transition there are implications for nearly every aspect of society, not least universities.

Education in its broadest sense is so critical in this seismic shift in the world because the transitions we are experiencing are centred on one essential element—knowledge. The pace of decay of knowledge is increasing significantly. A few decades ago, university students would study for a degree, graduate, and then live off the fruits of that study for the next 10 years or more. Today, by the time a credential is achieved, the knowledge is already out of date. By just about any measure, the pace of decay of knowledge is increasing.

One of the implications of this rising pace of knowledge decay is that we must be specialists. If we do not have world-class expertise in our domain we are commodities. As we connect together these pools of deep knowledge around the world, we are seeing the emergence of the notion of collective intelligence. While this idea is not new, it is only in the last decade that we have become so richly connected that it is moving from a dream to reality. This is a shift in who we are, our human identity, and absolutely in how we learn.

A former director of Xerox PARC laboratory, John Seely, wrote in 2011 that the half-life of a skill is five years (and shrinking). This means that half of what we learn today will become obsolete five years from now. This idea is getting a lot of attention among higher education leaders, who must plan for a future in which students will need to keep learning new skills ever more frequently after they graduate.

The advent of continual reskilling will be felt most acutely by the graduate professional education segment, which has traditionally been structured around traditional one- and two-year master’s degree programmes. Many are of the opinion that workers will likely consume this lifelong learning in short spurts when they need it, rather than in lengthy blocks of time as they do now, when it often takes months or years to complete certificates and degrees.

The most important challenge involves a shift in the way students consume higher education. Instead of attending a single institution, students receive credit in multiple ways, including from early university programmes, online providers, and multiple universities. Students are voting with their feet, embracing online courses and undermining core curricula, which served as a cash cow, by turning to alternate providers, and pursuing fewer majors that require study of a foreign language.

Participation in tertiary education will increase further. New information technologies could open the doors to new knowledge for a wider audience, if the current social stratification of access and usage patterns could be overcome. The non-university sector of education and other providers of lifelong learning in continuous education will equally gain heightened importance.

Consequently, universities are learning to be more nimble, entrepreneurial, student-focused, and accountable for what students learn. New learning styles and mounting financial and sustainability pressures are impacting the education landscape. Every day university leaders are developing new strategies to leverage these developing challenges and opportunities.

There is no doubt that the world finds itself in a precarious situation where constant change is ubiquitous and responses are slow. Globally, countries are finding themselves in a disruptive environment.

Equally, there seems to be a very large number of trends, pressures, and concerns that society and its political and economic leadership are imposing on universities. A cacophony of voices, a diversity of expectations, and contradictory requests are all evident. The recent university unrest in South Africa where students demanded for free university education and succeeded comes to mind readily.

Participation in tertiary education will increase further. New information technologies could open the doors to new knowledge for a wider audience, if the current social stratification of access and usage patterns could be overcome. The non-university sector of education and other providers of lifelong learning in continuous education will equally gain heightened importance.

Another major driver of the debate about the future of the university centres on its beleaguered business model. Students and parents, stretched by rising tuition costs, are increasingly challenging the affordability of a university’s degree as well as the diploma’s ultimate value as an employment credential.

This fragmentation of interests is underscored by the changing nature of the demand for university education. In orientation, values, and structure, higher education is still fundamentally based on concepts developed when participation in higher education was the privilege of a small minority of individuals in the 18- to 22-year age range. Today, participation in higher education has expanded enormously to include almost two-thirds of those in this traditional age range, plus a significant number of older, part-time students.

In today’s job market there is an increasing need for training and retraining of university-educated individuals. Thus, a focus on job-oriented education and on economic participation is driving an emphasis on relevance or on what can be called vocationalism—and thus changing the demand structure for university education with profound effects on the support of, demand for, and appropriate preparation of participants for a rapidly changing job market that requires 21st century skills and competencies.

In the Fourth Industrial Revolution the number of jobs mostly involving routine skills is shrinking and increasing automation at factories is rapidly replacing them. Artificial intelligence technologies like machine learning and computer vision are permanently eliminating low-skill jobs in offices, too. Many world economies, especially in the advanced world are turning from manufacturing to service, in which most new jobs do not require advanced education.

Finally, we have to concede that education in general, and universities in particular, are incessantly on the brink of huge disruptions. Two big questions, which were once so well-settled that we ceased asking them, are now up for grabs. What should young people be learning? And what sorts of credentials indicate they’re ready for the workforce? Is university education relevant for the 21st century and the new jobs that keep mushrooming?

Paresh Soni is an Associate Director for Research at the Management College of Southern Africa (MANCOSA)

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