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Disruptions and Higher Education: The Coming Crunch


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by Gerard A. Postiglione


It has become important to consider the long-term impact and disruption that accelerated technological change and intensified economic globalisation will have on universities, as well as on social and economic life. As the world becomes more interconnected and interdependent than ever imagined, it has generated enormous amounts of wealth, higher incomes, rapid urbanisation, and reduced poverty. But it has also sharpened and intensified social inequalities and created political disruptions that threaten to tear societies apart. Technological acceleration and economic globalisation have yet to significantly address global issues such as climate change and the larger common good as represented by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Populist movements in several Western societies around the globe continue to divide societies with a fear of the “other” and a denial of selected scientific truths. Universities push back by doing what they do best — building trust through free enquiry, ensuring that impersonal criteria are used to establish scientific facts, promoting the open communication of ideas, supporting the next generation of critical thinkers, placing value on a diversity of types of intelligences, and working for the common good and growth of an enlightened public.

Universities are facing the challenge of how to realign their core missions with the rapid emergence of technological innovations such as artificial intelligence (AI), big data and algorithms, facial recognition, biosensors, augmented reality, gamification, blockchain, cloud computing, and other yet-to-be-created technological innovations. These are disruptive innovations, but they can also be tapped for their potential to improve how students are selected, how courses are offered, how student learning is programmed and evaluated, how higher finance is managed, how knowledge networks are organised, accessed, and expanded, and how more graduates can be prepared for entrepreneurial jobs, smart cities, and sustainable development.

Blockchain applications have already made their way into the higher education sector and improved the international portability of credentials. The application of digital data repositories for college and university qualifications is a good example. In Europe, digital student data portability and digital student data depositories are a reality and will facilitate the global mobility of graduates who are credentialed for specific skills. Blockchain enables digital certificates to address qualification fraud in higher education. For example, Singapore’s Government Technology Agency has a solution called OpenCerts — an open source plan that issues and verifies education credentials on a blockchain platform. Higher and further education institutions can issue graduates and their employers with independently verified digital certificates.

Much of the impetus behind AI grew out of places like California’s Silicon Valley with the support of scientists at universities like Stanford and Berkeley. However, Asia and its universities, science parks, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists have begun to wrestle that lead away.

Much of the impetus behind AI grew out of places like California’s Silicon Valley with the support of scientists at universities like Stanford and Berkeley. However, Asia and its universities, science parks, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists have begun to wrestle that lead away.The direction of technological copying has reversed itself as China’s internet giants’ super apps, social commerce, and other key technology models are being copied in Europe and the US.

China has invested in new technologies on a massive scale, and AI is a core element of that country’s strategically planned future. All leading research universities are establishing AI institutes and engaging with business, industry, and government locally and globally.

The Greater Bay Area Initiative (that includes Guangdong, Hong Kong, and Macau) will create a new global centre for technological innovation. The area already generates a greater proportion of the national GDP of China than Tokyo does for Japan and New York does for the US. The initiative will increase university collaboration between South China and Southeast Asia. There is already a rising demand for new courses. Universities in the region have begun to offer an array of courses to anyone on AI and robotics, blockchain, data science analytics, e-commerce, virtual reality, and the internet of things.

Colleges and universities in Asia have begun to realise the changes in store for the labour market and workplace. A 2018 Microsoft study found that, driven by digital economy and AI, 85 percent of the jobs in the Asia-Pacific will change by 2021 (Microsoft 2018). According to the study, half will become higher value work roles and require massive reskilling. A study of economic and technological disruption by McKinsey and Co. showed how technological change reshaped and will reshape Asia in the years 2010-2020. These two major global companies, Microsoft and McKinsey, highlight disruptions, but not as disinterested parties. The future growth and survival of these organisations depend heavily upon an unlimited digitalisation of higher education and the economy in Asia.

McKinsey and Co. is disingenuous to declare that Asia’s current disruption is historically extraordinary. Asia has overcome civil wars, ethnic conflicts, foreign invasions, trade embargoes, starvation, social instability  and collapse, terrorism, as well as climate disasters such as typhoons, tidal waves and earthquakes. The McKinsey 288-page report, based on “years of research” by a company worth US$10 billion with 27,000 employees, failed to give any mention to economic inequality in Asia. The Bank of America and the economist Thomas Piketty have shown that Asia will continue to be the most unequal part of the world in terms of income. The World Economic Forum puts widening inequality on record as “one of the key challenges of our time.” The McKinsey and Co. report mentions the word “consumer” 10 times, “productivity” 19 times, and economic “growth” 48 times. It mentions “climate change” only three times, “women” twice, and “education” only twice.

It may not be surprising that colleges and universities in Asia lead the world in the implementation of liberal studies curriculum. The core values and mission of the university as an institution have a greater responsibility in a world in which there will be 4.7 billion Internet users, 75 percent of whom will be from emerging economies, even as opportunities for higher learning are also increasing.
AI innovations like facial recognition technology may improve safety at schools, universities, and workplaces. Biometric data can be used in addition to test scores to allocate students to the “appropriate” courses of study. AI algorithms may also provide split second cognitive data via a teacher’s cyber-linked eye glasses, even while a student is considering how to address the class with an answer to a mathematics question.

Alibaba’s Jack Ma may be correct when he stated last year on 18 September that “AI will transform the way we perceive and think of the world.” How it will transform our thinking is a question that has only begun to be studied. Yuval Noah Harari poses a key question: “What will happen to society, politics and daily life when nonconscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?” Will that mean the end of intuition? Like any other technology, questions arise about power, control, and intention. Do universities have a responsibility to set out principles that “disrupt the disruptors”, ensuring that AI technology does not lead their fundamental mission astray?

At the very least, there is a question of balance in the realm of the higher learning between algorithms and human-rhythms. The culture of AI carries with it a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). It encompasses an ability to track and monitor everything. It values explicit, verified data feeds and facts. It prioritises information efficiency, econometric logic, and human capital. Human-rhythms, as a culture of higher learning, focuses instead on humanity, ethics, creativity, and intuition. Human-rhythms engage only with what matters. Human-rhythms encompass what is implicit, holistic, and sentient. Human-rhythms prioritise embodied cognition, emotions, meaning, relationships, wisdom, and spirituality.

Economic and technological disruptions in higher learning are addressed by such a balance. Universities can engage effectively with these disruptions by remaining mission-focussed, not mission-fuzzy; by remaining market-smart, not market-led.

Economic and technological disruptions in higher learning are addressed by such a balance. Universities can engage effectively with these disruptions by remaining mission-focussed, not mission-fuzzy; by remaining market-smart, not market-led. As AI embeds itself within higher education, colleges and universities will become more margin-conscious, and less margin-whimsical, in making decisions about the programmes they offer, in the way they assess academic staff, and in the way they are held accountable.

Gerard A. Postiglione is Honorary Professor and Coordinator of the Consortium for Research on Higher Education, Faculty of Education, University of Hong Kong.

This article first appeared in the print version of HESB Issue #06. Click here to read the full issue.

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