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Thought Thursdays
A utopian view of what higher education could look like in future?


A number of emerging trends are shaping the future of higher education in South Africa and the world in exciting ways. Education and training beyond secondary school level have traditionally been the domain of universities and colleges and only a fortunate few were beneficiaries of this privilege.  

In South Africa, we are not only experiencing increased demands from our young population for better access to higher education, but we also have to prepare for waves of people that need to be trained and re-trained as a result of technological disruption – to enable the population to reap potential benefits from the 4th industrial revolution. 

The Institute for Futures Research at the University of Stellenbosch is exploring plausible futures for higher education in South Africa. What follows is one of the scenarios that the institute developed.

Jake is on his way to a study group meeting. The first time he had to attend such a meeting he did not really know what to expect, but now that he is familiar with the process, he is excited. He is going to the boardroom of HJ Enterprises, a company not far from his house. The learning facilitator is in Singapore and the other eight participants are somewhere across the world, all sitting in boardrooms similar to that of HJ Enterprises. Holographic imaging turns the 10 boardrooms into exact replicas of one another and the participants have the experience of sitting with the facilitator and their fellow students around the boardroom table, discussing the learned content and sharing insights.  

Companies such as HJ Enterprises took the opportunity offered to them by the new division of the United Nations that is responsible for global higher education.  The UN division provided funding to equip boardrooms across the globe with the technology to facilitate holographic streaming, the only requirement being that the companies make the boardroom available to study groups such as the one Jake will be attending for a maximum of 15 hours a week. The rest of the time the companies may use their super-smart boardrooms to have seemingly face-to-face meetings with clients and business partners from across the globe.  

Jake’s grandfather really has difficulty grasping the concept of Jake not going to university to do a three-year degree followed by subsequent years of honours and master’s degree studies: “In our time we had a clear ladder of learning. I decided on the degree I wanted to do, finished my studies and started working. I retired after serving my company for 35 years – that is what this beautiful watch was for, remember? But what are you guys doing? You did that basic work-readiness programme with weird subjects like systems thinking (what is that anyway?) and now you work in short stints for different companies, sometimes at the same time, and just do short courses when you ‘feel the need’. It doesn’t make sense. Are you ever going to get a real degree?”

“Grandpa, I will be eligible for a real degree after this course. I select short courses that are accredited by the Global Council for Higher Education. So, whether the course is presented by a company or an industry body or a university, here or anywhere abroad, I stack up credits towards my degree. Think of it as lego blocks rather than the fixed ladder of learning that you had in the past. I can now build my own degree-house with the blocks I prefer. They had to change the system, because there were so many people of all ages that needed to be trained and re-trained. Universities couldn’t cope with the demand and there are only so many experts in certain subject fields and sometimes they prefer to work in industry rather than academia, or they reside in another country. The Global Council for Higher Education was established to ensure that short courses offered across the globe are of the same standard, whether they are designed and presented by universities, companies or anyone else. Short courses are developed and accredited in quick response to technologies changing, existing practices being disrupted or new opportunities arising. 

This course I am doing now is a good example. The learning facilitator is the CIO of a company in Singapore. We don’t use the word lecturers anymore, because facilitators do so much more nowadays than only lecture or share content. The company developed this course based on its global expertise in an emerging technology and regards the time that their CIO spends on it as a good-corporate-citizen contribution to their industry.”

Grandpa (looking even more upset than before): “So what is happening with my alma mater now? Is it still there at all?”
“Yes, Grandpa, your favourite campus is definitely still there. Maybe it is even better known than it was in the past. Its researchers are producing amazing innovations and the articles that they write are published globally and they receive prestigious awards.  

“You have to know that there is no such thing as an academic year with two semesters any more. Contact time is scheduled in blocks throughout the year and the learning facilitators don’t lecture on the basic stuff – all of that is captured on video clips that students have access to on a shared portal from the minute they enrol for the course. Throughout their engagement with the learning material, students can do spot tests on-line and receive immediate feedback on their performance. When students feel that they have mastered the basic knowledge, they book their place for a study block on campus that fits into their schedule of other priorities.

“By the time students arrive on campus for their block, they have mastered the basic knowledge and are ready to engage with the learning facilitators and fellow participants in order to develop a deeper understanding and engage with participants in similar subject fields but from other disciplines to enable the development of real transdisciplinary applications. This touches on the other very important attribute of your (and my) favourite campus – socialising with fellow students, which opens up opportunities for creative innovations and, of course, for having lots of fun!”  

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Doris Viljoen is a senior futurist at the Institute for Futures Research​ of Stellenbosch University, and is a member of USB-ED’s faculty where she lectures on Scenario Planning​ and Management Development Programmes.

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