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Higher education institutions designed around their purposes

March 20, 2016

This week I was invited to be part of a panel at the launch of the ESRC-NRF Newton funding call for research into higher education in Africa. I was asked to address the topic “What are the most critical issues in South African post-secondary education, and how does this relate to the wider African context and beyond?” Here is what I said:

Universities were created centuries ago for a very different world. As a result there are many things about universities that are incongruous and inappropriate for the world we currently inhabit. I think they need to be redesigned and design needs to start with purpose. So for me the single most critical issue facing universities is to re-think their purposes and match their ways of working to those purposes in a manner appropriate for the 21st century. The critical issue facing post-secondary education more broadly is how to break the stranglehold that universities have on the collective imagination.

Universities have many purposes including generating new knowledge and training people for work. I want to discuss the purposes of higher education and how to create institutions better suited to achieving them. Because I have ten minutes, I am going to focus on just these two. There are also less noble purposes that are not often talked about which I want to touch on.

Back when universities came into being, knowledge was scarce, and hard to come by; now knowledge is freely available, no longer place-bound and there is a lot more of it. The problem of collecting scarce knowledge and co-locating it has been replaced with the challenge of sifting through a deluge of information for the valuable stuff. The nature of work is changing and we know a lot more about effective learning. I suggest we dismantle universities and build new institutions appropriate to the goals we are trying to achieve.

Let’s start with generating knowledge…

The Department of Science and Technology has ambitious plans to increase doctoral graduates and grow science in the pursuit of five Grand Challenges. These plans have been criticised as too ambitious given the level of resources we have. Now I am also sceptical about our ability to meet the DST’s goals, but I like the idea of ambitious plans and I think the five Grand Challenges are well chosen. I want to see this plan work.

The biggest limitation is skilled researchers and doctoral supervisors. If you have limited resources you must use them in the most efficient and effective way possible. The principle of labour specialisation is well established and has led to efficiencies in every other industry but we continue to avoid it in universities. Universities have great researchers whose time is occupied with teaching and great teachers who leave after three years of probation because they have not done enough research. Yet we insist that all academic staff must do both. (Yes, there are a few rare individuals who can, but research shows that most can’t.) This is an inefficient use of a very scarce resource.

A principle for effectiveness is to not spread scarce resources too thinly. If you want to do great research, you need to concentrate the few researchers you have to create a critical mass. Instead we want all our 25 universities to do research. So I think we need to set up say 5 or 6 research institutions where there is no undergraduate teaching, where researchers can focus on research and on training research students. Such an institution can be designed with staff incentives, infrastructure and procedures appropriate for people doing research, instead of having to compromise between incompatible, competing goals.

Yes, I know, in South Africa we are terrified of any institution that might appear elite. But the fact is that good researchers are rare creatures and if we think what they do is valuable, we have to act as though we value it and make space for them to do it. That is not to say that other institutions are not valuable, just different.

Secondly, let’s think about training for work…

Universities promise jobs and a way out of poverty, but the reality is that very few get this. I listened to four students at the end of last year, just completed honours degrees in information systems, with good contracts in their pockets, earnestly debating which cars they were going to buy and which cellphone contracts they wanted. These are the students who got the fairy-tale ending; they will live happily ever after. But many never graduate and many graduates face unemployment. Higher education is failing to train for work in two important ways. Firstly, many of those that get to university don’t graduate and secondly, with the exception of specific career-focused programs that develop scarce skills, many graduates are not being prepared for employment.

Let’s start with those that don’t graduate. One of the more sinister purposes of universities has been to classify people – the “educated” from the “uneducated”, the upper from the lower classes. Our universities continue to create two classes of people – the graduates and the failures. As higher education enrolment increases, more people get classified. Those who do not graduate, begin their adult lives as failures, believing that they are not good enough. How can you start a business, or train in some skill, or be the creative person that you once were when you are a failure? Those that don’t get into university are perhaps better off because they have not been measured against others and found wanting.

Why do students fail? Because they are trying to learn as part of a mass of students, in less than ideal circumstances, with staff who don’t have enough time for them. We know a lot about learning: that it builds on individual past knowledge, that people learn at different paces, and that people need different tools and experiences for effective learning. Yet we structure our teaching into courses, delivered in semesters, most often through lectures and reading written texts. We are limited by rules for degree structure, by set timeframes, and by inappropriate infrastructure. We live in an age of customisation where graduates (but not failures) go online and order their cars with personalised seats and trim. Why can’t that be done for learning? Why should one student not learn more slowly than another? Those dedicated teachers with creative ideas about new approaches to learning are ready to redesign better learning experiences for students, if only we would let them.

So I want to see South Africa having great teaching institutions, where academic teachers are freed from doing research, where they get credit for time spent writing text books and developing course materials, where they have infrastructure that allows for different styles of learning and where they can use 100% of their energy and imagination to craft the most amazing learning experiences. A great teaching institution has an environment where students feel welcomed and supported, where they can choose to learn in ways that suit their own strengths and that develop their weaknesses, where the flexibility that technologies offer can be used to make sure that most students end up as graduates and those that leave without graduating do so because they choose a different path for themselves and not because they have failed.

Now, what about unemployed graduates? Here I want you to entertain a radical thought. The number of jobs is decreasing and the number of people is increasing. We can try and pretend this is not happening, we can discuss job creation, but the maths is pretty obvious. Companies become more efficient, routine work becomes automated, the number of companies offering jobs decreases, so jobs continue to disappear. We are facing a future without jobs or perhaps, with jobs for only a few.

Universities promise employment on graduation, but for many, this is a lie and I find it increasingly uncomfortable to be part of that lie. In the future we will need young people to be resourceful, able to chart their own way, able to craft for themselves three or four different ways to access the resources and self-respect that they need to survive and thrive, and able to use increasing leisure time constructively. Instead we produce graduates, who believe that self-respect lies in a “real” job, and we produce failures who have no self-respect and are crippled into inaction. What we should be doing is rethinking the general curricula we offer to prepare young people for a world without jobs.

More insidious are the consequences of universities valuing certain types of knowledge over others. We have seen the collapse of the Technikons as artisanal skills have been devalued. In a school north of Johannesburg well-appointed workshops for teaching these skills are empty and the headmaster explains that nobody will enrol for those classes because they all want to do “academic” subjects and they all want to go to university (in a school where few ever got to university). By defining some knowledge as “inferior”, young people lose the opportunity to learn skills which may just enable them to craft a niche for themselves in that future without jobs, and the country loses out on getting needed work done.

Perhaps we need to ditch the term university altogether. Let’s just have learning institutions for specific careers and institutions for general higher learning. In any case the idea of an institution encompassing all the knowledge in the universe is laughable today. There is too much knowledge now to concentrate it all in one place.

Africa and beyond…

How does this relate to the wider African context and beyond? Well, let’s start beyond. Higher education is one of the great exports of Europe and European countries won’t give it up easily. We can’t expect radical change from there. But in Africa, we might be able to do something different.

African countries have problems. We need high level skills to produce science that can solve big problems. We also need low level skills that will build houses, run sewerage plants, and feed people. We have limited resources. The one resource we have in abundance is the energy and enthusiasm of young people. So for Africa we need to craft a different system, one that recognises that research and skilled workers and knowledgeable individuals are all important. Let’s make new institutions specifically designed for these purposes. We need research institutions where those with special abilities can do research and develop young researchers. We need teaching institutions that develop young people, some for clearly identified jobs, and some for life without a job.

This can only happen if African countries can get over the urge to emulate their former colonisers. Africa should learn from the over-developed world, and refuse to copy it. A university, developed for very different circumstances, is not the best way to use our limited resources. We can’t afford institutions that follow an inefficient model of integrating research and teaching, because of the ideals of an old dead German. We don’t want an unequal society where people are divided into graduates and failures. These old institutions are not working in the best interests of our society. Let’s do something different.

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