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Change in higher education — we must quickly adapt to changing, unequal digital environment

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Professor Letlhokwa George Mpedi is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg.

At the centre of any tectonic shifts made by higher education, there has to be awareness of the digital divide which can exacerbate inequities and inequality of access.

There are multiple conundrums in higher education — these are the sweeping trends that have the innate potential to change the higher education sector radically.

The question for leadership in higher education is how do we harness these changes to propel us in a direction where we are positioned to provide access, maintain and accelerate knowledge production for the benefit of society, meaningfully contribute to the public and social good and keep abreast of the shifting terrain that poses challenges constantly?

There are, of course, unique considerations in South Africa. We are 30 years into democracy this year, and South African higher education has shifted from an elite race-based system to one that can be termed as “massified”.

Yet, the shadows and vestiges of apartheid persist as the buoyancy of the economy has faltered.

What do the sages say about the future of higher education? On the radar currently and for the foreseeable future are the sweeping changes in technologies and the advent of artificial intelligence (AI). These technologies have arrived like a tsunami and can and must change traditional teaching, learning and research methods.

They impact research integrity, authenticity, academic codes of conduct, and other ethical considerations. While these advances can be of enormous benefit to higher education in terms of monitoring or designing customised interventions for students, there need to be sectoral considerations for ethical frameworks to govern technology usage, especially at the technology/human interface.

Read more in Daily Maverick: A culture of ethical AI research can counter dangerous algorithms designed to deceive

The recent withdrawal of research papers globally and from credible publications, as well as public interrogation of data integrity, require super vigilance from and by universities, government, and consumers of research and research entities. Like any industry, universities also have to maintain vigilance for cybercrime.

Tech solutions and change

Drawing on lessons learned during the pandemic, higher education can renew and discover afresh parallel campuses that reside in the digital space, which we are exploring at the University of Johannesburg (UJ).

The demand for access that plays itself out annually could be assuaged through digital mirrors of our campuses, drawing on the benefits of technologies to contend with the access dilemma.

While these can be created anew and not merely replicated, they require disruptive shifts to our pedagogical approaches to teaching, learning, and research.

Universities must adapt to a rapidly changing digital environment and consider future learners’ needs. Universities will have to acknowledge that learning needs are changing; the need for more flexible pathways like micro-credentials or modalities of delivery has to change.

At the centre of any tectonic shifts made by higher education, there has to be awareness of the digital divide which can exacerbate inequities and inequality of access. This can be considered to be a significant conundrum in higher education.

All shifts by institutions must consider the contexts of our students, the hidden costs of technologies and the need for careful planning and resource allocation.

Digital and funding divides

It is a fallacy that quality education delivered “online” is cheaper and thus requires fewer resources. In 2020, Mmaki Jantjies outlined that three factors impact the digital divide — “access to hardware, understanding digital means of communication, and internet affordability. These factors are harming two of the country’s best chances at development and equality, those being access to education and access to employment opportunities.”

In the South African context, access and affordability of higher education have always been paired. Just last week, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande told Parliament that approximately 600,000 students across universities owe more than R5.8-billion in fees and thus cannot receive their graduation certificates.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Universities should not withhold certificates from impoverished graduates

The funding crisis nationally, in particular the NSFAS debacle, has the potential to derail the universities’ pursuit of widening access. The misalignment with student costs or university calendars, for example, works counter to the policy goals of our country.

The NSFAS crisis is a huge risk, especially for institutions with large numbers of students dependent on financial aid. As yet, the “missing middle” students have not been adequately catered for and the pressures on universities and students have the potential to erupt.

At UJ, we have launched various initiatives, such as the “Double our Future Impact” campaign to raise funds for registration. More can certainly be done, but this will require buy-in from all stakeholders.

There is a truism that applies in higher education — do more with less. In the face of fiscal constraints, recent cuts to subsidies by the government, and the lack of movement towards a credible funding model for higher education, there is an increase in performance demands. High on the risk register for all universities would be the possible impact on the quality and, ultimately, survival of the institutions.

There are associated problems then of increased academic workloads, the need for technological upgrades at universities, ageing infrastructure and related pressures like high demand for student accommodation for instance.

Post-school alternatives

Another major conundrum that has not been resolved is the parochial view that post-school options or pathways are only universities. The 2014 White Paper on Pset envisaged an array of pathways and alternate journeys that students could embark on post the National Senior Certificate (matric). These have not materialised in credible ways and sufficiently accessible modes for students.

Thus, higher education is viewed as the sole route post-school, with alternative career pathways insufficiently carved out. This creates inordinate pressure on universities when viewed as the only destination.

Closely related to the above point is the often-heard refrain that universities must produce work-ready graduates for the economy and that the panacea for all societal problems is placed at the proverbial higher education doorstep. This is a mechanistic and instrumentalist view of a university or higher education institution’s role and function.

Universities are situated within a socio-political-economic context and higher education alone cannot resolve the flailing economy. Universities need to cultivate good relationships with potential employers and other societal institutions. This must not be in an instrumentalist way.

The salient question will be to ensure that graduates are employable. For example, a recent UJ survey demonstrated that adaptability is the characteristic most valued by employers. This requires universities to focus on innovative ways to develop attributes in graduates amid the knowledge explosions that have occurred in the last two decades.

With search engines, AI tools, and other such technologies available, the way teaching and learning occur has to change. It is a massive disruptor and requires careful re-curating of what and how university education is offered. Universities are the engines for knowledge creation.

This was evident during the pandemic as university academics credibly advised and influenced government policy-making and implementation.

Universities are where vision can be created. As we deal with climate change and sustainability globally, the role of academics and intellectuals in shaping our futures becomes clear. The ivory tower days of academics must be done away with as our academics need to claim public spaces and influence the trajectories of society in all realms.

Universities need to guide students on moral, political, and social issues, especially in a world of fake news, post-truth, and credibility paradoxes – this is what I call societal impact.

Universities have always prided themselves on institutional autonomy, though the extent to which this has been realised varies depending on time and context. There is a need to swing the power back to the knowledge producers and regain trust and belief in the power of knowledge.

Slippage into corruption, mismanagement, governance debacles at universities and other scandals throw the higher education sector into disarray as the reputational damage is incredibly high and deep.

The very face of higher education is shifting — this is an overarching reality we must contend with and respond to with vigour and verve. DM

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