Originally published in ‘Identity Magazine’, UWTSD, Winter 2017
Dual status as a faculty member and doctoral candidate triggers a burning question – what’s the purpose of university in a technology-dependent information age? This sparks a number of lines of inquiry into: function as a ‘social institution’ (Prisching, 1993; Neal, 2017), ability to deliver on stakeholder demands in a ‘VUCA’ world (Bennett & Lemoine, 2013); and state of preparedness to face an advancing battle with artificial intelligence (AI) (Bostram, 2016).
Whether or not your fantastical view of the future resembles a barbarian dystopian war where mankind take up arms to preserve its hierarchical position or is more akin to the sophisticated ‘ex-Machina’ world where scientists unleash a sentient AI, the cold reality is the machines are coming, and they’re after our jobs (Deloitte 2016, Oxford University, 2016). This is scary stuff for educational institutions strategically fixated on incremental change, adaptions of access and content (Morrison, 2007) or criticised as ‘anachronistic, outdated and irrelevant’ (Viswanathan, 2013), hampered by conflicting priorities and ambiguous decision-making processes (Sporn, 1996).
Science is developing exponentially; technology accelerating (Berman & Dorrier, 2016). Robots and algorithms have an appetite for work across the collar taxonomy not just routine tasks, proving they outperform in some tasks originally perceived to be the sole purview of humans (Lovelock, 2015 Marr, 2016). This affects not only professionals such as within the legal and accounting sectors, but knowledge work across the board. The Boston Consulting Group predicts by 2025 as much as a quarter of jobs will be replaced by either smart software or robots. Oxford University research claims up to 35 percent of UK jobs are at risk of automation inside the next 20 years (Deloitte, 2016).
For ‘university’, the time for action is nigh; to re-establish its place and identity in the world; and to this end it must urgently attend to 3 challenges:
1. Oft beleaguered with ‘slow, incremental, deliberative and consensual change’ it must now face up to the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ (Deloitee, 2015), with its’ technological developments that blur the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres’ (Swab, 2015) driven by AI and cyber-physical systems (Marwala, 2007)
2. Respond to, and address charges they are mere knowledge replicators, over-producing graduates with a mismatch of skills for the current demands of the labour market (CIPD, 2016); that their students have evolved into customers to be placated rather than learners to be challenged (Harrison & Risler, 2015)?
3. Balance the needs of its immediate stakeholders with responsibilities to wider social goals; to build capacity and capability to facilitate collaborative networks in the context of growing knowledge-based economies (OECD, 1996); and be confident in its capability to resolve problems that require interconnected, collaborative efforts to creatively and imaginatively address the risks, instabilities, uncertainties and rapid pace of change (Henwood et al., 2014)
One can almost feel the strain on ‘university’ to design and adopt a new positioning strategy with fresh vision (Lowry & Owens, 2008); to fast morph into to an entity that can move with the speed, risk-taking and adaptability demanded by today’s disruptions (Kebbel & Peña, 2013). This is a move that requires its stakeholders to challenge its founding assumptions (starting conditions); even if the uncomfortable and resultant effects upset and disrupt established norms. Perhaps the process will birth a new relationship to knowledge; the university as a facilitator of ‘wisdom’; that one aspect that cannot be reproduced in machines. “Wisdom is a uniquely human state…[it] requires one to have a soul, for it resides as much in the heart as in the mind” (Bellinger, 2002).
An education revolution is called for, reverberating across aims and methods of academic inquiry; so that the basic aim of university becomes that to promote wisdom by rational means, not to just acquire knowledge (ibid). At minimum, university has a “duty of care to recruit and prepare existing workers for a future that will increasingly test human resilience in the workplace” (Griffiths, 2017). University curricula, redesigned and re-tooled needs to fuse disciplinary knowledge with applications outside the classroom, fostering an appetite for continuous learning where skills are constantly reconfigured to match the size and shape of new problems (Patak, 2015), and complex ones.
Universities are perfectly staged to engage in sense-making and claim an identity that has currency in the fourth revolution; they have a good stock of innovators in their midst. It has already survived centuries ‘bringing together diverse people from across the globe with a common goal’ (Benson, 2017), but now let ‘human intelligence, resilience and overall indispensability’ (Clarke, 2017) be their raison d’être.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company