Bold choices needed to transform HE’s core mission

Developing human capital is at the heart of what our universities do. Developing our staff as future-ready lecturers, researchers and managers of education and developing our learners as tomorrow’s entrepreneurs, employers and employees is our core mission.

Economies thrive because universities develop global citizens who actively contribute to their organisations, communities and society at large.

This core purpose, I believe, now stands challenged. As a past senior leader in traditional higher education I have experienced closely the managerial traps that are driving us away from innovation, imagination and discovery.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

I was born in India, the largest democracy in the world, so discussions, committees and meetings are not an issue for me. In fact, I love them – that’s how people come together and shape new thinking.

However, often the systems, structures and processes in our universities are designed to support the status quo and groupthink driven decision-making, and are vehicles for the cementing of biases. This presents an urgent need to ground higher education leadership in its central mission as a developer of human capital.

One reason for this urgency is explained by the simulation hypothesis that proposes that all of reality is an artificial simulation. This hypothesis itself is not new, but technology and computing power are feeding it in newer, more powerful ways.

Technology and computing power have grown exponentially over the past 50 years. Could we foresee a time when, say, in the next 100 years, computers become so powerful that we can run simulations that are indistinguishable from reality?

Moreover, could such computers develop with a level of machine intelligence that surpasses human intelligence?

At the current time, with our understanding of computers being what it is, there are opposing schools of thinking on whether we could reach a post-human state where machine intelligence dominates human intelligence.

In such a world, how could an education system founded on the creation of human intelligence (from faculty to graduates) survive and thrive? Surely #GlobalEd2100 cannot look like #GlobalEd2019? What will need to change to make higher education a genuine hub of discovery and development and not simply a system for disseminating degrees? I offer three avenues for a 360-degree transformation below.

Learning management systems

Many game management systems can progress, track, monitor, communicate, financially transact and globally engage 24/7 with 10 million plus players in real time; comparatively, United Kingdom higher education hosts 2.5 million students!

Beyond the obvious benefits of efficiency and effectiveness, partnership with ‘gaming technology’ could accelerate the systems on which our primary business of ‘learning’ takes place and create a truly collaborative and global interface for learning.

This is an obvious area for development but also one that, in my experience, has had only patchy attention in mainstream higher education, where a premium is associated with the campus and vice-chancellors often spend huge amounts on shiny new buildings, sometimes in response to student demands and sometimes at the expense of investment in other critical areas like staff development.

Content curation

When I trained to be an academic, Professor Google and the Internet of Things were only mildly beneficial in the development of one’s practice. Some 20 years on, I don’t believe content development with ‘pretty’ powerpoints dumped on a VLE is what I want to do as an academic. Nor do I believe that is what a future learner expects of me.

Of course, this varies from discipline to discipline and I am in danger of over-generalisation here. However, in my discipline, business, I know, effective curation of new content engages learners and helps them discover knowledge for themselves in ways that were perhaps not possible a few decades ago.

This, as it happens, allows me the time to create original content through active, applied research, often co-created with my learners.

The shift here is from knowledge to imagination for me; for my learners this means a significant shift from cramming content to a creative expansion of the cortex. Surely if machine intelligence is greater than human intelligence in the future, becoming more human rather than more ‘intelligent’ should be what we pursue?

Braver leadership

It amazes me that higher education seems immune from the transformations we are experiencing in all other walks of life. The ‘Song Remains the Same’ strategy is head in the sand, seemingly denying the relevance of the growth of intelligent machines.

As the understanding of what it means to enter a post-human age develops as per the simulation hypothesis, the next 50 years would seem to offer an opportunity for universities to radically re-develop their model and design.

There should be, at the heart of any re-design, an approach to learning and leadership that creates a synergy between human and machine intelligence.

One could be quite radical in this thinking; for example, could we see humans ‘attending’ universities (will we still call them that?) to develop and learn through engagement with (post-human?) machine intelligence entities? The idea that humans will still have a role in a dominant post-human civilisation would seem to be consistent with Bostrom’s ideas of running ancestor simulations.

These possibilities could be new realities or we could wait for a more negative set of outcomes – a scenario in which graduate unemployment continues to rise, questioning the value universities add and a public discourse that greases the wheels for the extinction of our universities.

Alternatively, braver, bolder leadership from our university management teams could play a transformative role and begin today the simulations that could be a powerful reality tomorrow.

Dr Sonal Minocha is Chief Partnerships Officer and Professor of Management at Nexford University, Washington DC.