Universities cannot resist AI – Rather, they must embrace it

Global participation in higher education is estimated to have doubled from 19% to 40% in the 20 years after the millennium; but over the same period youth unemployment has risen around the world by 4%, according to the International Labour Organization.

These contrasting statistics tell us that the university as an institution is succeeding in capturing its marketplace in spite of the fact that universities are making no impact at all on reducing skills shortages. There is no shortage of jobs; there is a shortage of talent.

Despite efforts by employers to recruit more people directly from school, a university education remains the primary pathway to a good professional career.

Today, a university education has become so commonplace – its cultural power has become so strong – that it takes a bold and provocative school leaver to shun university entirely in favour of jumping straight into a career in a white-collar job.

Universities draw their power from credentialing, not the quality of their teaching or their ability to prepare students for the workplace. No human resources consultant in the world has ever questioned the quality of a degree from a university with a proud history of producing Nobel Laureates. This is something I call the higher education credentialing complex.

Even at the best universities the selectivity of students masks their true performance. If you only accept the brightest school leavers then it follows that they get the best jobs, whatever the intervening years at university taught them.

The monopoly universities enjoy in their market makes them totally resistant to change. These institutions are cathedrals of conservatism and masters of survival, and they need disrupting.

Disruption from within

The vast majority of people enrolled in university today study unidimensional degrees and are assessed on their ability to learn facts. Employers could not be clearer that they do not want or value this type of learning.

Governments around the world have sought to evolve higher education to focus more on the demands of the labour market, but aside from cursory inclusions of more career advice, little changes. Even when faced with funding cuts, rather than focus on efficiency savings, universities have favoured embracing larger class sizes and cutting services and extracurricular activities.

There is cause for hope though. Disruption is coming from within.

A university’s credibility lies in the perception that its assessments are pure, accurate and fair. Yet today artificial intelligence (AI) is calling this into doubt.

ChatGPT is simply the first in a series of AI developments that will make it easy for students to achieve perfect scores in essays and other coursework activities without any of their own input. The AI systems available today may not be there yet, but there will be no holding back that wave. If university assessments are undermined, then their credentialing will be questioned.

Unsurprisingly this disruption has been met with resistance. Education institutions are focused on self-survival. Some are going back to handwriting essays. Others are banning computers entirely.

Technology and artificial intelligence are seemingly viewed as competition, but the university should instead focus on its customer, its students.

What universities need to do next

Those customers are attending university because they want the preparation for the world they enter when they graduate. That world will surely be one where AI tools are increasingly influential and technology is ever present in their daily working lives.

Universities need to make three changes to adjust to this new reality and those that move first and fastest will benefit the most.

Firstly, universities need to reimagine themselves. They can no longer consider themselves isolated institutions that shape and influence society; they need to adapt and be more shaped and influenced by society.

This means increased partnerships, more closely reflecting public trends and embracing new tools, greater responsiveness to the needs of the labour market and openness to valuing the contributions of non-academic voices.

Secondly, higher education institutions need to reimagine how they operate. Our supposedly great educational environments should be at the vanguard of the implementation of technological tools in our society.

They should be pushing boundaries and identifying ways to advance our understanding of technological tools and exploring ways to utilise them in their day-to-day operations. In particular, they should consider how they teach and how they assess their students.

Finally, universities need to reimagine what they teach. ChatGPT illustrates that the undeniable direction of travel is that machines and automation will become more prevalent in our work. Our role will be to prompt those machines: how do we ask the right questions to ensure we get the best answers?

Automation will not necessarily put people out of jobs as was once forecast, but it will change the type of jobs that are available, and the skills that those jobs require.

It is time for universities to not just embrace the AI revolution but lead it.

Samon Achani Biaou is an education innovator with a particular focus on the alignment between education and the labour market. He has nearly two decades of experience in education innovation across management consulting, product development and corporate training. Samon holds an MBA and a MA in education from Stanford University in the United States.