Higher Education Review ›› In My View

Redefining the Role of Universities in the Modern Era

By Prof. John Dewar, Vice-Chancellor and President, La Trobe University | Tuesday, 22 Aug 2017, 04:15 IST

While there are many metaphors for universities, I suggest that 'University 4.0' is a fitting description of the ways that universities around the world need to respond to the new economy and associated trends such as digital disruption and radically changing labour markets. I argue that universities must undergo revolutionary change if they are to stay relevant. Before considering the future for higher education; however, it is worth reflecting on where we have come from. The depiction of universities provided by Professor Ronald Barnett, Emeritus Professor at the Institute of Education, University of London, has much to commend it.

Under Barnett's account, version 1.0 would be the metaphysical university, in service of God, that first emerged in medieval times. The early stages of this university resolved around specialist communities that eventually evolved into the tradition of a liberal arts education. Version 2.0 might be positioned as the research university that emerged in post-industrial societies, whereby universities became the focal point for research-driven technological advancement. The great post-war expansion of universities in Australia and other parts of the world has a clear research orientated focus in service of economic development.

Version 3.0 might be described as the entrepreneurial university, operating in Barnett's words, as a university 'for itself', serving many diverse functions and communities but first and foremost concerned with optimizing its self-interest. Which leads to my case for a new approach University 4.0, or what Barnett calls the 'ecological University', or the 'university for others' outward looking, deeply connected to industry and the communities around it, and committed to serving to the needs of its students. La Trobe University is currently developing its next strategic plan, and in my view, we must move towards a 4.0 model if we are to flourish in these fluid times.

Firstly, I would like to distil in simple terms the reasons why we need to rethink the role of the university. The first is that the world of work for which we are preparing students is changing very quickly. We know that automation will make many current occupations obsolete; we know that pathways into and through a working life are changing dramatically, with many of the traditional ladders into the workforce disappearing; and we know that the shelf life of skills and qualifications acquired through formal education at school and university is reducing very quickly. In short, the rapid change we see with digital technologies is rendering obsolete traditional approaches to qualifications and pedagogy. 

The second reason for rethinking the role of a university lies in expectations concerning universities and economic development and growth. Research in universities has been an important source of innovation ever since University 2.0, but simply assuming that university research will somehow find its way into useful hands is no longer enough. More generally, a university's social license to operate is increasingly dependent on its ability to demonstrate that it gives back to the community around it more directly than through the production of graduates.

The result will be a much more active pursuit of applied university research, through deep industry partnerships, accelerator programs, incubators, and the like. This is reinforced by the fact that technological innovation now happens much faster and at a smaller scale that in the past � the old methods of translating university research into commercial outcomes just take too long. This creates a need, and a space, for the rapid stimulation of ideas and their translation to commercial outcomes.

Universities are uniquely well placed to play this role their combination of smart people, sophisticated research infrastructure and, often, extensive real estate, position them well to act as the center of precincts or innovation hubs involving physical co-location of the industry as well as fostering start-up businesses. The final reason is digital technology itself, which is actually a significant driver in the developments I have already stated. It also increases expectations about the availability and flexibility of the learning experience, while creating opportunities to respond to these challenges in new ways, and opens up other opportunities previously undreamt of.

So, in light of all of this, what does University 4.0 look like? I suggest there are four features that will come to define University 4.0. First, universities will provide on-demand learning in multiple modes, with a seamless handoff between those modes. Second, there will be a move away from degrees as the only form of credential offered, towards a more mixed offering of degrees plus shorter cycle qualifications and credentials. Third, there will be a much stronger focus on career management for students, both while they are at university and when they become alumni, and this will go beyond 'careers advice' in its traditional forms of the past, and will include things such as the ability to 'top up' standard university qualifications throughout a working life. Finally, universities will become physical sites for co-location and research collaboration with industry, and as brokers of relationships between young entrepreneurs and potential mentors, supporters and funders.

In conclusion, while I have described a trajectory that I believe universities must now follow, it remains to be seen whether they will be able to follow it, particularly given industrial frameworks that make change extremely arduous in the higher education sector. For that reason, decisions universities make about business models for taking advantage of these new trends will be crucial, and no doubt some will succeed and some will fail.

Finally, I think University 4.0 is an era in which the traditional status hierarchies of universities will be challenged. The universities that are best able to adjust to change will be able to transform perceptions of their prestige and desirability, perhaps very quickly, and we may see the emergence of new models for what it means to be a great university in the modern era. To adapt a phrase, it is an exciting time to be in higher education. 

Prof. John Dewar

Professor John Dewar is an internationally-known family law specialist and researcher. He is a graduate of the University of Oxford, where he was also a Fellow of Hertford College from 1990-1995. He is currently the Vice-Chancellor and President of La Trobe University.

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