A few weeks ago the Economist headlined with the phrase – “Creative Destruction” Now one would expect that they were applying the iconic phrase of the founding father of entrepreneurship, Joseph Schumpeter, in relation to some new technology or a flagship industry of the economy. It therefore might be a surprise to learn that they were actually using it in reference to an institution, which has remained largely unchanged in its thousand-year history – none other than the university.
But after a slow start, the university is making up for lost time in the change department. Three fundamental forces are driving this reinvention of the university: Rising costs, changing demand as life long learning starts to become a reality of innovation shifts in the job market and disruptive technology. Technology in particular has long held out the promise of new possibilities for greater effectiveness in education, but now this potential is finally being delivered. It is remarkable to reflect on the new world of learning that is now so easily accessible. In the last few weeks I have signed up for a Stanford Introduction to Computer Science course, transported into the epicentre of Silicon Valley at the click of a mouse, while at the same time hearing a headmaster relate his excitement from sitting in a local coffee shop listening to the top academic in the field share his insights around leadership in education in a MOOC (“Massive Open On-line Course”) he has just started.
Salman Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, in his recent book “The One World Schoolhouse – Education Reimagined” paints a vivid picture of where this future might take us. His “new” university places a much heavier emphasis on practical experiences and internships, which are then supported with on-line self-paced academic platforms to provide the underlying theory of the disciplines covered. Not so much a flipping of the classroom as a flipping of the whole university! And while this might sound far fetched, already the University of Waterloo in Canada is regarded as one of the top engineering universities in the world with a educational approach that includes graduates finishing their degree with a full twenty four months of internships at leading companies.
Now while this sort of change might seem intimidating, it provides a powerful opportunity. For a related example, Brazil has similarities to South Africa in that significant numbers of youth are not accessing tertiary level education. In response, it it is reported that Brazil’s for-profit educational institutions now have three-quarters of the country’s higher-education market, largely driven by their low fees and improving quality. An equivalent statistic for private universities in South Africa would be closer to 10%. Given the challenges of access and throughput in South Africa this is not an opportunity we can afford to miss.
This is not to say that there has been no innovation in South Africa. One only has to look at the Tertiary School in Business Adminstration (“TsIBA”), the free university established in Cape Town with a strong focus on entrepreneurial development, as a powerful example of the possibilities of thinking differently. But while there might be aspects of innovation it is not pervasive. As a Foundation driving entrepreneurial mindset with our students at nine universities across the country, it is evident that entrepreneurial thinking is not a central focus. Yet a more consistent understanding of our institutions as academic enterprises is required if we are to move South Africa forward.
One of the leading examples of re-orientating a university into an academic enterprise is Arizona State University. ASU President Michael Crowe states: “Enterprise is a concept sometimes wholly lacking in discussions about higher education. ‘Academic enterprise’ and the entrepreneurial academic culture that such an orientation instils encourages creativity and innovation with intellectual capital—the primary asset of every college and university.” It is a matter of simply realising that universities can only effectively become incubators of entrepreneurship and innovation if they themselves practice entrepreneurship.
There are important benefits for South Africa to capture in this higher education revolution. Firstly higher education history is framed around the tension between scale and excellence. Historically you had to choose between one or the other. The “new” higher education institution can pursue both, a very enticing prospect for a country currently burdened with both low access and throughput rates. On the scale side of the equation, the cost benefits of integrating technology more fully into the educational system allow for greater access, while at the same time harnessing opportunities such as the adaptive learning platform, Knewton, to maintain excellence in academic performance through previously impossible customisation of learning pathways, even at significant levels of scale.
How should our universities be responding to these seismic shifts in higher education? We look forward to your thoughts.