Of all the civil rights for which the world has struggled and fought for 5,000 years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental.... The freedom to learn... has been bought by bitter sacrifice. And whatever we may think of the curtailment of other civil rights, we should fight to the last ditch to keep open the right to learn, the right to have examined in our schools not only what we believe, but what we do not believe; not only what our leaders say, but what the leaders of other groups and nations, and the leaders of other centuries have said. We must insist upon this to give our children the fairness of a start which will equip them with such an array of facts and such an attitude toward truth that they can have a real chance to judge what the world is and what its greater minds have thought it might be.
– W.E.B. DuBois, The Freedom to Learn
Much is written about the changes impacting institutions of higher education. The decline in enrollment and in full-tuition students is approaching a crisis for this critical part of our economy. It is just the tip of the iceberg of what can only be described as a tsunami.
We do not compare this tsunami to the closing of one retail chain or another, to one change or another in consumer behavior. This threatens one of the foundations of humanity, the birthplace of Socrates, Albert Einstein and countless others who changed our world and defined our shared culture. A serious process of questioning is ‘suddenly’ reconsidering many of the leading fields and the schools that offer them.
To make sure we are clear, this article is not about STEM vs. Humanities. The uncertainties about what students ‘really’ need do not originate from within academia, nor does this tsunami draw its momentum from within the body of customers – students, families, etc. Prospective students did not wake one foggy morning and started shouting, “We dislike universities!”
From our global experience, what casts heavy doubts about the role of higher education is occurring across the road, in the place where graduates have every honest intention to work after they complete their training. That is where things have changed so much. These changes are not mild or somewhat significant, they are more profound than most people could ever imagine.
But as often happens, it is in moments of evolution and even during revolutions that a world of opportunities opens up. And these same institutions can make a big impact as long as they attune and tune-up side-by-side with those who are driving the tsunami.
Technology, Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship – coupled with gigantic investment – enable this generation’s most incredible talent to create things most of us never even imagined. This creates an unprecedented disproportion between economic growth in some sectors and dramatic decline in others.
Let’s be honest: If we had an option to know whether we have enough milk by checking our smartphone or by getting up and opening the fridge, which of these would we opt for? The world expects apps for everything from milk and toilet paper to detecting and curing cancer. And most non-app pursuits still exist as long as there’s a WiFi connection, soon to be G5.
Institutions of higher learning have to step up in pace and scale in order to keep up, participate and even prosper, which – being physically and financially settled – is complicated for them, and impossible without outside partners and support.
You may ask yourself, why can’t we do without universities? This is not a silly question.
A few factors can illustrate what role higher education play in this Fourth Industrial Revolution, beginning with technology…
Research and development play an essential role in the process of innovation. Often it is research – especially pure research – that holds the keys to breakthrough and success. This is the domain of higher education, not so much of industry.
Historical perspective is essential to future breakthroughs in technology. How we engage with where we are heading, assisted with and by technology, requires us to understand the journey we have undergone. Historical journeys are best embodied and reflected within the higher-education space.
Succeeding in the business of innovation and creativity, and entrepreneurship, requires mastering a multifaceted range of skills and sensibilities which most people do not have and certainly cannot master on their own. Gaining access and owning these attributes requires a process and a practice of learning, on-boarding, and constant intellectual growth. To further complicate matters, these skills need to be acquired not individually but – just as innovation is achieved in industry – in groups and teams. Again, one of the best places to acquire multifaceted skills and outlook is the university.
And yet, “Houston, we have a problem.” Most higher education institutions are not currently attuned or prepared to face appropriately the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In simple terms, they still want to continue selling Business, Law and Architecture degrees just as they did back in the Good Old Days. But this approach will achieve two things: It will put them out of business and it will fail their students.
The big question, then: How should university stakeholders determine what and how to teach, and therefore succeed in this scenario?!
Allow us to cite two of the many examples we know intimately, one from Switzerland and the other from Russia. In both cases the stakeholders want to determine a new focus – a new curriculum and a strategy to impact their society. They were accompanied by partners from civil society, academia, government and others helping them through this process and transition.
We have been closely involved in several countries, including with designing and conducting a targeted Assessment. Assessment encompasses the entire process from the first questions about internal changes or the establishment of a NEW university, all the way to brick-and-mortar construction, feeder schools, and specific deliverables the university owns.
At the core of the Assessment is an exploration with the university community and a broad range of stakeholders from industry, government, other education institutions, the entrepreneurial community, and various other groups. All of them have an interest and perspective on the innovation and technology employment market, and are part of the technology economy in that region and country.
We look closely at the skills and competencies these employers expect and are seeking from graduates of these universities when they interview them, what it would take to produce graduates who match these criteria today, and how to build in adaptability for future needs and conditions.
You may be surprised to learn that, during our assessments, most of these employers in the technology and innovation sector made it clear: Either the universities prepare their graduates to own ALL the skills and more, or they won’t be hired. This rather clear and blunt reality informs the university stakeholders that they are expected to train more and not less in order to secure future employment for their graduates.
What higher-education stakeholders do with this information is up to them. Inevitably, we have found that – by implementing changes in structure and culture – their answers help grow the economy and support the unprecedented innovation and technology of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. But the vast majority of universities have yet to even ask the uncomfortable questions needed to start the process. The ball is in your court, the need and opportunities – as we described – endless.
We are here to help you with the transition!