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Are universities prepared to face the challenges of the fourth industrial revolution?

26 September 2019

Report on the IEASA (International Education Association of South Africa) Conference by Gunda Huskobla, Chair of the Coimbra Group Doctoral Studies Working Group and Managing Director of the Graduate Academy at the University of Jena

“Internationalisation of Higher Education in the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR): Innovation, Diversity, Inequality and Inclusivity” – all of these aspects were addressed at the Annual Conference of the International Education Association of South Africa (IEASA) which took place in Somerset West, Cape Town, from 21-23 August.  Although IEASA is the smallest International Education Association, the conference theme was a very big and comprehensive one. It attracted both local and international educators, including directors and staff of international offices, researchers, professionals in education as well as International Education Association leaders from all over the world.

Below is a selection of four current 4IR issues that were discussed with respect to resulting implications for the higher education sector:

  • Research landscape. Digitisation is rapidly changing the research environment. For example, academic research increasingly requires a significant amount of digital savviness, the half-life of knowledge is getting shorter, and discoveries of one academic discipline are needed to solve challenges in other academic fields (e.g. big data analysis, 3D printing of biological matter). Universities may address these challenges by stimulating interdisciplinary research and institutionally fostering a curious mind-set towards other disciplines.
  • Research topics. The world faces global challenges related to topics such as poverty, inequality, climate, environmental degradation, peace and justice. The United Nations addressed these challenges by formulating 17 Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDG). A growing number of universities integrates these interconnected goals in their mission statements, research agendas and education profiles. In order to avoid overlap and achieve synergies, there is an increased need to collaborate internationally with other research groups and to connect “outwards” towards civil society and industry. Universities need to enable local and international collaborations, interdisciplinary research groups as well as engagement with and for society. An innovative approach would be to create institutional opportunities for student-driven research topics, such as student-led PhD programmes (e.g. on topics such as leadership & safety or climate change). Another approach is to use international mobility schemes for doctoral researchers as a mutually beneficial, yet cost-effective way for universities to build international collaborations: While international mobility is an enriching experience for early-stage researchers, it can also strengthen research teams, facilitate access to research infrastructure and build strategic collaborations.
  • Students. Today’s students learn in a different way. First research findings show that brain activities of digital natives are different from the generations before. This has consequences on an ideal learning environment and raises the question on what kind of programmes this generation of students needs.
  • Skills. Automation and artificial intelligence make it possible for machines to learn from experience, adjust to new inputs and perform human-like tasks. This will change job descriptions, professions and whole sectors. At the same time, a new set of skills and competencies is needed. Universities have to equip their graduates with transversal skills. Most challenges of the fourth industrial revolution can only be addressed with communication skills, translation skills between technology and practice, empathy as well as critical thinking skills.

After all, the concept of university has a longstanding tradition. Universities have adapted to changing conditions over time and have proven to be innovative. With the fourth industrial revolution, the innovation cycles get shorter.  Internationalisation of higher education is naturally embedded in the fourth industrial revolution. There seems to be a high potential for both institutions and individuals to address challenges and develop strategic opportunities in international education. Yet some basic principles such as reciprocity and equity should be given strong attention to, especially when dealing with diversity, inequality and inclusivity.

Dr Gunda Huskobla’s participation in the IEASA conference was funded by the Erasmus+ capacity building project YEBO!