Higher education – a vast and changing future landscape

Doris Viljoen is a senior futurist at the Institute for Futures Research. (Picture: Supplied)
Doris Viljoen is a senior futurist at the Institute for Futures Research. (Picture: Supplied)

South Africa is entering a vast and dynamic higher education landscape, influenced by numerous drivers of change. This ranges from changes in demographics, the kind of students who enrol, technology and learning strategies. The role of the campus as we came to know it is altering and the three-year, full-time degree may also be phased out.

There is a growing aspiration of “going to university” and “getting a degree”. There seems to be no clear idea of what career to pursue.

The aspiration is just to go to university. Hand in hand with this is an emerging need for education that is truly African, but at the same time internationally recognised.

The world of work is changing very fast, and with it the requirements and skills needed. All the regulations and rules of higher education are sometimes slow to adapt to these changing needs.

The changing world of work and technology means that people will have to be skilled and reskilled more often in future.

Higher education will also have to deal with a new kind of student. They will come from all age brackets and will not only be aged 19 to 24 years anymore.

Institutions of higher learning will have to accommodate all ages in future, and create systems, processes and offerings that accommodate the needs of a wider audience.

We tend to focus on the youth when it comes to higher education, but forget that there is a large number of people between the ages of 30 and 59 years with little to no higher education experience. The focus in future should not only be on the young post-school youth, but on older students too.

Students are becoming more environmentally conscious. This means that universities should include teaching and learning on matters of sustainability across all programmes.

The three-stage path of going to university after school, then working on a specific career and then retiring will not be the norm in future.

A single dose of education after school is not going to last for a lifetime; a person may have a number of very different careers in his/her lifetime. There should rather be a shift to blocks of education throughout a working life.

There are a number of disruptors involved that could change the environment in which we live and operate. These need to be taken cognisance of going forward.

Technology should not always be seen as negative. Often, this is where new growth happens. A lot of these technologies could in fact enable people.

Just think of blockchain technology and wearable technologies as well as augmented and virtual reality – these could be very powerful tools in the hands of people that facilitate learning.

The sharing of technology and more collaboration between industries and higher education are already evident.

Amid this there is a greater push for free education – not just in South Africa, but world-wide. There is a want for a more accessible academic world and for a bigger audience to enter.

What could higher education look like in future?

With artificial intelligence (AI) becoming a reality, we might see a person having an AI tutor tuned in to sensors and wearable technology – knowing when and how to introduce ideas, link up with other people and sharing views, forming a “global learning platform” free from the existing processes.

We may see some interesting new learning outcomes. At the moment outcomes are very much course-specific (e.g. calculate return on investment). Computers can however perform many of these tasks and do so much faster.

What people can bring to the table is wisdom, tolerance, emotional intelligence, ethical understanding and cultural literacy. Therefore, these could be the next outcomes that modules will be designed around.

We could see the end of some of the traditional three-year degrees in future and emerging in its place rather “badges” for completed modules.

The Institute for Futures Research foresees the possibility for students to “build their own degrees” in the form of a “portfolio degree”, consisting of a mix ‘n match or pick and mix from modules delivered by multiple providers of higher education.

This could not even be limited to one country – students could complete multiple modules offered by various institutions world-wide.

This probably would bring about an international system of accreditation of degrees, subjects, modules or courses, with academia and industry moving closer together. We would also then see specialised universities tied to certain industries.

What we are reasonably sure of, is that there will be a process of lifelong learning with multiple doses of learning in a lifetime and with the focus on societal problems and education that cuts across disciplines.

To see a presentation on this topic, click here.

Doris Viljoen is a senior futurist at the Institute for Futures Research (IFR), a strategic foresight unit at Stellenbosch University.

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