Universities towards engagement in a digitised world

Published On: 19 October 2021|

The university is both there and not there now. This was the enigmatic opening gambit of Professor Alwyn Louw, Vice Chancellor of Torrens University in Australia.

“I think that we are living in an era of very drastic change,” he told delegates at the recent higher education conference, adding that we are “where the university is changing and has to share space with co-creators and co-learners.”

He cited German mathematician Helmut Grunsky’s idea of old systems and institutions that had ceased working, “where the old order has already collapsed while no new order is yet in place.” Yet, Professor Louw cautioned that this was a “very drastic statement that we should be careful to use.”

He certainly ignited a conversation – which was in keeping with the conference objectives to unleash thought leadership and debate. Themed The Engaged University, Universities South Africa’s 2nd Higher Education Conference, co-hosted with the Council on Higher Education (CHE), concluded on 8 October. Over 140 participants (speakers and chairs) graced the event that was attended by about 2000 delegates, making this South Africa’s largest higher education conference ever hosted.

Speaking during USAf’s World of Work Strategy Group’s second breakaway session sub-themed Universities and the New Technology Moment and Society, Professor Louw (above) centred his presentation around the university towards engagement in a digitised world meeting the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

He said in this an era of change, the core of the argument needs examination. “We’re talking about an academic culture that is steeped in reflection and teaching and is being disrupted and reconstructed. But what is the crux of it? It is that we’re talking about a networked world, 24/7/365 where the university is moving into a space where it must deal with co-creators and co-learners.” This leads to a new definition of the situation.

In this context, therefore, the university is both there and not there now. He asked: “So, where are we, at the moment?” arguing that, for now, society does not want the university to abrogate its role, and that there is still need for a university presence including what it does.

Positing that this is not the first time universities have been faced with change, Professor Louw broke unpacked the “change” as:

  • Political change
  • The new role in post-colonial international development operators
  • New liberal efforts around the role of the university
  • The engagement drive
  • The technology explosion
  • CoViD-19
  • Other specific drivers that impact the university.

He said it was necessary to re-imagine everything to understand the context of what is changing: the position, role, value, and importance of the university. However, it was accepted they are major sites of culture, practice, identity and knowledge formation and dissemination, of symbolic control, of multipurpose networking, collaboration and engagement.

In the current context it was necessary to establish “what drives us?” adding that practical discussions should replace esoteric debates. “We have to factor in the new dimensions of technology and the convergence currently taking place, the fusion between the biological, the physical and the digital – the fact that it impacts all disciplines. How do we define this in the context of research, or learning and teaching?”

He said that new capacity in terms of the systems operations, manufacturing predictability and machines taking over human functions is forcing human beings to think again about their own creativity. “They also have to examine their own role in understanding the value and contribution of technology. Then we have the massive amounts of data that enable machine learning, that enable the cyber physical systems… These are the practical things that we need to understand.”

The automation of knowledge

Louw noted that the automation of knowledge in what he called the 2nd machine age (manual labour and physical strength were the main characteristics of the first age) is critical.

“We are moving into an era where knowledge now becomes the product of entities that we cannot necessarily control in the way we did in the past. We must accept that workers will be displaced; there will be new functions and roles and new opportunities. New goods and services will threaten established orthodoxy.”

As the context is redefined, service functions and businesses will continue their own drive to understand better, and have more surveillance, more control, and more management – yes of their robots – and also of people, Professor Louw said.

He outlined the impact of shifting from the 3rdIR – that digitised our infrastructure – to the 4IR that reconstructed our infrastructure to be intelligent, with computers as the 4IR computational forms with which we can interact. “While the digital revolution (3IR) was based on digital computing – we now see the blend of digital computing with quantum computing. This is what we have to understand as the drivers impacting the nature of our world,” he said.

Humans can achieve more

The advancement of technology enables human capacity to achieve more, he said, sharing his ideas on how:

  • The integrated systems processes, broader networks, and the internationalisation that transcends the local – and fundamental to that – the way in which we live and work is changing. “In other words, information is everywhere, it enables new roles, new relations, new patterns. It creates shortermism, efficiency and entrepreneurial demands and the demand for alternative considerations of contracting, evaluating and remunerating to manage a new world with a new dynamic.
  • We should not accept that where technology is, at its ultimate, is necessarily where we should find ourselves at the moment. We should well and truly understand the context in which we function.
  • The rapidly changing actors in resource mobilisation force flexibility and definitely create a labour market that looks totally different – where a highly skilled minority enjoys strong bargaining power and the low skilled do not.

Who controls the technology? Keeping humans at the centre

Some questions that Professor Louw believes need to be considered carefully: Who controls this technology? Who manages the power relations? How do we ensure equitable access? How do we make sure that people and their wellbeing remain centred in this process? Information is easily accessible and there is a new definition of openness and engagement as new technologies mark a shift to different forms of engagement with academic knowledge – and beyond the academy.

Said Professor Louw: “We must accept that existing instruments of pedagogy have lost some of their utility value. So, we must understand that this environment is moving faster than we’d like and carries with it some hard and specific realities.

Transformation of the World of Work

Professor Louw said: “Regarding the transformation of the world of work we should look at the impact of technology, and the impact of its convergence that creates a network of interaction, interdependence and synergy that drives the whole economic, social, and political process. “This directly impacts production and distribution, enabling the multi-dimensional relations to reinvent themselves.”

He said it must be accepted that nobody is able to foresee or imagine the dynamics in the next 10 years around creation of jobs and functions. Jobs in the future will have a totally different content and constitution. Key aspects that must be understood are the importance of soft human skills as well as professional and technical skills.

“The line of traditional roles in the middle skills range will not disappear but change. New jobs will fill the middle ground and technology will pervade everywhere. “Individual responsibility, lifelong learning and horizontal career progression will be needed as people move around into new jobs, new environments and new integrated experiential learning to prepare the workers of tomorrow.”

Professor Louw said that the world of work would require critical competencies that included critical thinking and an innovative approach that would require new knowledge with a host of variables that will continuously “create an environment that we need to understand.”

Referring to the number of people across the world who will be affected, Professor Louw threw out a figure (he acknowledged that there was some debate around the numbers research) of around 395-million people just in China. “I think we should take note that we’re not talking about an entity that can be contained; we’re talking about a global drive; we’re talking about a paradigm shift.”

Positioning the university in this context

Professor Louw said that positioning the university in this context is where the focus should be as higher education is forced to interpret and understand this new world to fulfil its purpose.

In his view, three critical aspects need to focused on:

  • How do we talk about curriculum in this environment? How do we address the world of work, its new rules and content?
  • How do we support equal access to new opportunities?
  • How do we prepare people for the new social and economic context?

“Of course, when I talk about curriculum, it sits on sound research and knowledge creation. There has to be integration of new technology into the process of learning and functioning – of both the university in terms of its operational aspect, as well as the learning aspect,” he said.

Digital first

Universities are shifting from the idea of knowledge intensive entities of the 20th century to the idea of data intensive and digital first universities of the 21st century.
He listed things that remain core to the function of universities:

  • Employability of students;
  • Leverage
  • Growing markets
  • Financial sustainability
  • Maximised research performance

“We cannot abdicate these roles and critical responsibilities. The question is how we are we to do it, and how we understand the context in terms of the role we have to play.

The university as an engaged entity in the new era

In the globalising world, enabled by the digital impetus, powerful forces push universities to reinvent themselves. Professor Louw said: “We don’t argue that; we accept it. We must change into strategic actors seeking autonomy but not losing relevance and accountability.

“This is critical: How do we make sure that what we do is significant enough to have impact?” Universities, he said, now compete for resources and recognition and are challenged in terms of the value they have to offer. The ability to prepare students to be leaders, engaged citizens, socially mature adults and critical thinkers is still key and Professor Louw thinks this is where the university value contribution sits.

The new engaged university’s function should be to:

  • Generate generations of students ready to contribute to the world around us and serve its context with a new awareness, a new ethos.
  • Promote and incentivise engaged scholarship in research teaching and engagement.
  • Commit to planning for and serving a higher purpose – improving human wellbeing.
  • Specifically create institutional capacity to enable staff to build relations and engage.

“My argument remains this: the focus is internal and external. It’s evident that faculty working in isolation becomes outdated. Engaged universities therefore adopt explicit concern with achieving societal impact. They are increasingly involved in cooperation and knowledge exchange.” Professor Louw said that based on the new reality, the relationship between the university and its stakeholders rests on sustained partnerships and reciprocity that enables effective ideation, invention, legitimisation and innovation.

Stakeholders need a voice

The university must therefore give stakeholders a voice – this should manifest in practice. “That enables the engaged teaching that we’re talking about, where we collaborate in curriculum decisions, where we prepare students for practice and productive citizenship and advance and apply various forms of knowledge.

“We talk about engaged research and scholarship which must be academically defined and socially accountable. But it incorporates reciprocal institutional and civic engagement. It must be systematic and rigorous and integrate theory into practice.”
Professor Louw added that “engaged service, of course, is a partner relationship, it is not a matter of driving – it is a matter of engaging. The engaged university must deal with its total reality – internal and external.

Dealing with the internal and the external

The university needs to understand that its context sits with government, with business, with the community and with the rest of the academic fraternity. That relationship, Professor Louw believes, is based on its scholarship, partnerships and reciprocity to enhance relevance and legitimacy. “It’s on this basis that we create innovative ideas. This innovation, because it carries the legitimacy, becomes the base on which we can develop society.

“The technology enhancing engagement then – the responsibility of the university – is to make sure that it uses technology progressively to facilitate this engagement:

  • To enable reciprocity
  • To enable its internal capacity
  • To enable external partners to build that capacity
  • To enable the opportunity to enhance the ability for more effective collaboration and sharing.

In this process, he said, skills are developed across collaborative networks.

Maintaining relevance

“Do we have a choice? If we don’t move we become irrelevant; we remain ivory towers where there is a lack of resources. We lag behind. “If we move too slowly, industry will take over and have the monopoly of knowledge and we will lose the common good and very expensive exchange of knowledge.”

The university, as an active partner, should become the base to serve as a culmination point for knowledge. It should also facilitate the continuous common good purpose while optimising its ability to be scientifically active and facilitate learning and building of the environment.

Summing up, Professor Louw said: “The university has a crucial role to play: it is designed to meet the needs of the past industrial revolution that is not suited to the automation economy. We have a different demand from our students who do not have the luxury of determining our role in isolation. We must rethink and we must make sure that acceptability and legitimacy enable the university to continue as common good.

Panel Discussion:

Session Chair, Professor Marcus Ramogale (left), Acting Vice Chancellor at Mangosuthu University of Technology: I see something that has serious implications for those of us who are in university management: there is a view that with these technological changes the future of the university as an employer is going to change. The professor that we employ will serve as an independent consultant and sell his or her expertise to any university. The university will become a platform where students and those who teach meet. If you have a brilliant teacher of mathematics, he or she will make that expertise available to students anywhere.

Professor Louw: This is an already existing practice at my university (Torrens University Australia) where TenX uses the most brilliant lecturers and makes that material available all over the world. That is a practice already existing in the world of work in terms of the new way of contracting and engagement. It is a matter of optimising the capacity available as people contract and involve themselves in specific initiatives more and more across boundaries. At Torrens, our contract staff are in a ratio of about 120% to 130% of our full-time staff.

Deputy Vice Chancellor: Engagement and Transformation at Nelson Mandela University, Professor Andre Keet (above): I see two tracks of arguments coming through.

  • The technology, the university and society
  • The digital transformation of the university

Though these are connected, they are not the same and do not work on the same assumptions. Professor Louw, in your presentation you raise the idea of the university having to develop its public good function. It’s very difficult to think of universities as already having that public good function at the systemic global level.
While the university must protect that public good orientation, it has to of course embrace it.

I really must support, and like, your argument about how we employ technology to enhance engagement and to release and unburden our internal capacity for better collaborations with society in that space. That formulation is very useful, as is the interplay between the internal and the external. But there are a couple of red lights on my dashboard.

[Referencing an earlier presentation that had covered global research themes within the higher education transformation space, Professor Keet said]: The interface between digital transformation, distance education and technology within the university on the one hand and social transformation, social justice, equity, gender, race, inclusivity on the other hand showed the schism to be very wide. There is not even a tangible connection between those two sets of transformation. Our empirical data doesn’t show that platform emerging.

As an invitation to a conversation, I ask whether the 4IR and technological advances – in the way that we are framing it – is not already setting up the university as a utility or as a company? Professor Louw, I mean that the language that is deployed already undercuts the public good advancements that you think the university should be making. If you just deploy the ideas of the network – innovation, online, creativity, disruption, change – those are the master terms of the company, and of capital accumulation. And now those are the master terms of our digital transformation as well. Where are we going to find this public good university in the deployment of those master terms, which are being used to legitimise various sets of new liberal developments within the university? Against that backdrop, how would the network and the online be prioritised to protect the public good imperative of the university and at the same time embrace technological advances so that we can unburden the resident capacities we already have as complex institutions?

Professor Louw: I think the lesson we’ve learnt with CoViD and the transition (which all of us had to do swiftly) is the way in which we try to make things accessible – almost in a mechanical manner – to maintain the current operation and trend of providing higher education and involving people. In that process, there has not been a consistent consideration of what we are talking about when we argue that someone will not be able to travel or access a specific facility. Then, all of a sudden, we realise we are expecting people to work online, but they don’t have access to technology, or the skills or the ability to use that technology effectively. On the one hand we sit with technology as an instrument that we use to solve a problem, but we are not consistent with the approach we follow to say how do we enable participation in a way that will be continuously developmental.

If we talk about the 4IR (I’m very cautious in going into a debate) I’m trying to be consistent in terms of what the reality is in terms of the key role players, and the elements that we should consider in designing a solution for a specific situation and all stakeholders in the process.

If we consider the position taken by Google and IBM (they’ve already awarded 3.5million of their badges and certificates) the whole process of facilitating learning and creating opportunities is moving away from universities in terms of mass provision. They are functioning next to the accreditation system. So, if the 4IR and the technology becomes available to enable that type of scenario, it is moving away from the ethos that we typically see for an effective learning environment. So, the argument is real. That is why I ask: how do we make sure that humans still remain at the centre in the process of enabling the use of technology towards improving the wellbeing of people?

The argument, for me, is that I think universities do not have an option but to move out of this environment where it predetermines the way in which we look at the reality. We will have to understand that the interpretation is a collaborative opportunity; the solution is reciprocal and that the ability to have impact will be a co-definition of the outcome. I think these are the important concepts that we need to keep in the debate, even as we keep our feet very squarely on the ground. We need to understand who the role players are, what their needs are, and make sure that we understand the potential of the new technology to enhance the productivity of the people to achieve more.

So, based on the understanding of the potential, we can make sure that we build the capacity to use technology and not be enslaved by it.

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.