• 16 Nov 2023
  • Doris Viljoen
  • 5Min

A Utopian View of What Higher Education Could Look Like in the Future

A Utopian View of What Higher Education Could Look Like in the Future

Several 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.  Only a fortunate few were beneficiaries of this privilege.

Addressing Higher Education Demands and Technological Shifts

In South Africa, we are not only experiencing increased demands from our young population for better access to higher education. We also must prepare for waves of people who need to be trained and re-trained because of technological disruption. This is to enable the population to reap benefits from the 4th industrial revolution.

Envisioning the Future: Institute Scenarios and AI Integration in Higher Education

The Institute for Futures Research at the Stellenbosch Business School is exploring plausible futures for higher education in South Africa. What follows is one of the scenarios that the institute developed. This has since become even more plausible with the normalisation of AI-integrated tools such as Chat GPT3

Global Collaboration in Education

Thandi is on her way to a study group meeting. The first time she had to attend such a meeting she did not know what to expect, but now that she is familiar with the process, she is excited. She is going to the boardroom of HJ Enterprises, a company not far from her house. The learning facilitator is in Singapore. The other eight participants are somewhere across the world, all sitting in boardrooms like 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 together, discussing the learned content and sharing insights.

Transforming Corporate Spaces into Global Learning Hubs

Companies such as HJ Enterprises took the opportunity offered to them by the new division of 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 Thandi will be attending for a maximum of 15 hours a week. The rest of the time, companies may use their super-smart boardrooms to have seemingly face-to-face meetings with clients and business partners from across the globe.

The New Paradigm of Education and Work

Thandi’s father has difficulty grasping the concept of Thandi 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 is your generation 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?”

Building a Personalised Degree: The Evolution of Accredited Short Courses

“Dad, 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 who needed training and retraining.

Universities couldn’t cope with the demand and there are only so many experts in certain subject fields. 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.”

Shifting from Lecturers to Industry Experts in Global Higher Education

“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.”

Reimagining Alma Mater: A Glimpse into the Modernisation of Traditional Campuses

Her father, (looking even more upset than before): “So what is happening with my alma mater now? Is it still there at all?”

“Yes, dad, your favourite campus is still there. Maybe it is even better now than it was in the past. Its researchers are producing amazing innovations, publishing articles globally, and receiving prestigious awards. There are tools that we use that are based on something called AI that help us speed up many of our processes.

Revolutionising Higher Education Learning Structures

“There is no such thing as an academic year with semesters anymore. Scheduled contact time occurs in blocks throughout the year. 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 online spot tests and receive immediate feedback on their performance. When students feel 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 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 opportunities up for creative collaborations, building networks and of course, for having fun!”

Bridging Boundaries in Higher Education

In envisioning a utopian future for higher education, the Institute for Futures Research at Stellenbosch Business School paints a vivid picture where learning transcends traditional boundaries. The scenario unfolds in a world where holographic technology, facilitated by global initiatives like the United Nations. This transformative process turns study groups into international collaborations. Thandi’s journey exemplifies a paradigm shift away from the conventional three-year degree model, as she assembles her own education.

This future embraces the fusion of corporate contributions, technological advancements, and collaborative learning. It suggests a harmonious coexistence between traditional campuses and the innovative educational landscape. This promises a higher education experience that is both dynamic and fulfilling and prepares one for the future world of work.

Doris Viljoen, Director: Institute for Futures Research, Stellenbosch Business School.

written by

Doris Viljoen

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