Shanghai FORUM 2019丨Michael Spence:Education for a Changing World: Universities and the Fourth Indus

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Michael Spence,Vice-Chancellor and Principal, The University of Sydney

Education for a Changing World: Universities and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Chairperson Jiaoyang, President Xu,

        It is a remarkable privilege to be here. And I'm going to, if I may, now turn the access in a number of ways.  

The first is we've been thinking at the grand scale about the relationship between countries, about geopolitical shifts, and they are obviously important as we think about a period of global uncertainty, but they are not the only source of uncertainty at the moment, and in particular not the only source of uncertainty that is affecting both the work of universities and also the future of work itself. So in one sense, I'd like to both change the scale of our conversation to think about the role of educators in a changing world, and to change the focus of our attention, from geopolitical attentions, to the changes to the world of work that re going to be brought about by the artificial intelligence revolution, because universities are going to be crucial to finding a way through our current eleventh, and universities are going to be crucial both as building people-to-people bridges between countries and bridges of knowledge, of understanding, of research and of education. It's a tremendous privilege to be here with a large delegation from the University of Sydney to sign what will be the most significant investment so far in the China relationship with Fudan University in the area of artificial intelligence and brain sciences.

The scholars differ about the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on the future of work, the future shape of the labor market, but all agree that changes are happening and that the pace of change will only increase. And some estimates as many as 40 percent of current jobs will be replaced by computers in 10 to 15 years, and no one doubts that the students currently at Fudan, currently at the University of Sydney, will need to be ready for several career changes during their lives, and changes that will require changes of whole careers, not just of jobs or roles. Much attention has been focused on the role of university research, but I think it's also important not only to think about research and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, but also the role of the university as the center of education. And it's in that area of the role of the university as the center of education, as the places in which these future leaders that will help us navigate the uncertainties of the current time are produced, that we need to think. The technological revolutions of the past have mostly left the roles for which university education is required untouched, but not so of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The work of lawyers, of accountants, of doctors, of many professionals will be radically changed. As a recent report by the Reuters put it, today being educated increasingly means having attitudes and behaviors that enable one to adapt quickly to changed circumstances. President Xi made a similar point earlier this week when he spoke of the need for resilience. The question facing all universities is how we produce graduates who are going to be the people telling the machines what to do, and not just people whose jobs are replaced by the machines. And I think for every university, that requires essentially two areas of self-examination and reform, areas that we've been giving considerable attention to at the University of Sydney, and if you'll excuse me, I'll use my own university as a case study. In addition, the changing face of technology poses important questions for education policy-makers, one of which I'd like to touch on briefly at the conclusion of my remarks.  

        First, there's no doubt that universities have to closely examine both our undergraduate curricular and the extracurricular experience that we offer, to determine how future-proof they may be. The University of Sydney has just massively reformed our undergraduate curriculum, with the Fourth Industrial Revolution in mind, a process that involved extensive international consultation with experts, with employers throughout the region, with students and with our community more generally. We began with a blank sheet of paper, by asking exactly what personal and intellectual qualities a student will need in order to have the adaptability to respond to rapidly changing world of work. We have designed a new undergraduate curriculum intended to live up to these core attributes. As a result, all our undergraduate degrees are now marked by three key features. The first of these is a balance between deep disciplinary expertise and interdisciplinary effectiveness. In English-speaking world of course, models of undergraduate education are being spread on the spectrum between the poles of the English model with its single area of focus and the very broad American undergraduate liberal arts education. Having taught in those systems, I can say with some confidence that a traditional English undergraduate education teaches you everything about almost nothing, and a traditional American undergraduate education teaches you nothing about almost everything. But it's generally agreed that the education that can survive the Fourth Industrial Revolution must be T-shaped. It must both be broad and genuinely deep in a particular disciplinary area. Depth is required because it's been repeatedly demonstrated to be the most effective way of teaching critical thinking skills that will be essential to the adaption to change, and also effective skills in written and oral communication. Still students need to acquire a habit of mind that pushes beyond the superficial, into the complexities of a given issue or given area of learning. But the questions of the modern world, questions such as how to deal with climate change, with global shifts in the political balance of power, in equality and alike, are essentially multi-disciplinary in their formation. And key to an effective graduate career is the ability to work in multi-disciplinary teams, and to learn quickly the language and intellectual framing of disciplines that are not one's own. In Sydney we have addressed this issue in a number of ways. First, we have strengthened the rigour of our disciplinary education going back to the future to ensure that every student has a very deep grounding in a particular area of learning. Second, we have introduced the requirement that students take some units of study that are available across the university, units that either focus on a multi-disciplinary problem, or introduce students to methodologies that are new to them. But third, and most radically, we've made it possible for students, indeed we've encouraged them, to take a second major, to take two majors, and to take them from anywhere in the university, whatever their primary major may be. Students are putting together really unusual combinations of subjects, and they are doing that in two deep areas. They are doing that always with some future-oriented justification in mind.

The second key feature of the undergraduate education that we think you'll need to survive the Fourth Industrial Revolution is caused by the fact that it's not only technological change that our students will be faced with. The world is increasingly interconnected, no matter how strongly at the moment many politicians may be working to push us apart, the world is increasingly interconnected and increasingly a culturally complex place. Rapid changes in technology and the resulting uncertainty that many will feel in their work and in their futures will only increase the need for better cross-cultural understanding. Business, civil society and government leaders of the kind that universities traditionally produced will increasingly need the ability to reach out beyond their own cultural frames. For that reason, we've made the development of cross-cultural competence a key goal of our undergraduate education. 40% of our Australian students already speak a language other than English at home. But we've made it possible for everyone to acquire an additional language as a part of their degree whatever they are studying. In addition, we've already got more Australian students studying overseas as a part of their degree than any other Australian university and China is their destination of choice, and we also hit our strategic target of at least one in two domestic students spending a significant amount of time overseas. And finally, we thought deeply about the internalization of our curriculum and the way in which cultural competence can be developed in the classroom.  

But it's the third new structural feature of our undergraduate degrees that we think is relatively distinctive at the scale at which we are doing it. Remember we are a university of almost 70, 000 students that teaches almost everything, and all students are required to undertake an extended real-world problem-solving experience. In this context, we work with companies and civil society organizations across Australia, China, India, the United Kingdom and Europe, and ask them to identify a real strategic problem on which they are actually working. It can't be devised for the process. It can't be something that's made up. And then they need to work with groups of our students and academics in multi-disciplinary teams to find solutions to the problems. The students need to demonstrate in devising the solution the way in which their own discipline makes a contribution to its solution, but also their effectiveness as part of working in a multidisciplinary team. That experience for many of our students brings together all that they've been learning in their discipline, in multi-disciplinary learning and in cross-cultural effectiveness. It prepares them for a world of change, in which the problems that they'll need to solve don't come with any boundaries, and in which interpersonal effectiveness is as important as their core intellectual and professional skills. The feedback so far from the organizations with whom we've worked across the world, many of whom end up adopting one of the solutions devised by our students and from the students has been outstanding. We've also found a much more satisfactory approach that embedded learning, internships and alike because of the incredible variation in the quality of experience that students can have in placements and internships.

Complementary to those three structural features of our undergraduate curriculum, we are working hard to ensure that our own campus experience delivers us the personal attributes that are necessary for leadership in the future. This is something that I know many Chinese universities are currently grappling with. Contrary to some of the predictions within the digital world that the on-campus experience will disappear, we believe that it's face-to-face interaction, but particularly the ability to leverage the social, capital and networks of the university, that's going to be more and more important for people in the crucial post-secondary phase. It's also in extracurricular activities that students often acquire many of the so-called “soft skills” in interpersonal effectiveness that artificial intelligence will never be able to replace. Moreover, employment rates for three-year undergraduates in Australia are declining. Employers tell us that that's because they increasingly believe that it takes four years to mature a post-secondary student to the point in which they are effective in a modern workplace. Arguably, that will only be truer as uncertainty in the world of work grows. Much of that maturation happens in the extracurricular space.

So that's how we approach the issue of undergraduate education for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In a way, it's been really gratifying to hear employers talk about the value of much of what universities have traditionally do, but also to challenges, to think about some new things. Universities all over the world are experimenting, with ways of preparing people for uncertain future of leadership, but this T-shaped education, cross-cultural effectiveness, the ability to bring learning to real-world problem solvings are key to all the solutions that have been experimented with at the moment.  

The second challenge created for the educational mission of universities by the Fourth Industrial Revolution is of course in the area of post-graduate learning and lifelong learning. As the market for post-graduate taught courses declines everywhere, universities need to examine the question of how actively they are going to engage in what is increasingly called“The 60 Year Curriculum”. As professor Gary Matkin from UC Irvine said, the insight of the heart of “The 60 Year Curriculum” is that as the consequence of AI and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, educational needs are going to more than ever extend beyond the whole of the career and emerge at different points of the career, as work evolves and sometimes radically changes. The question arises that as jobs come and go and careers develop through a lifetime, it's how to ensure that workers have education that they need at the time at which they needed—both technical education and further development of the soft skills—that are going to be so important. The relative responsibilities of education providers of individuals and of employers to train and retrain them as their careers are developing is increasingly being renegotiated in different ways and in different systems. Moreover, it's not only a question for the future. Many in our current employment will, within their working lives, see not only their jobs but their professions disappear, and face the need for significant retraining. One thing that's clear is that the traditional postgraduate model of retraining through subsequent degrees and diplomas is proving too inflexible and too costly to respond to the developing needs of the labor force. We have postgraduate or taught postgraduate courses, such as MBAs, that remain popular, but they do so often as a kind of finishing school, a sort of pre-experience education, rounding out an undergraduate education rather than a subsequent qualification. One approach that offers partnership with private online providers has been to develop online taught postgraduate courses of one kind or another, and most universities such as my own have significant examples of such courses. There remains a significant investment of time and effort on the part of students who often face strong demands on their time and energy, and that raises the question of the role of the university in micro-credentialing, quite literally, providing credentials for smaller or more specific attainment levels, sometimes stand-alone, and sometimes able to be built up as models of a more substantial qualification. For every university, the question is going to emerge as to its flexibility, and to its willingness to enter into this new market. Of course, the so-called MOOCs (the massive online open courses) that have emerged in the last decade, have been a wide-scale experiment in this space, and we have many just like everybody else. Almost every university has put its toe into this kind of activity. But the stakes for universities have been relatively low, and for most, MOOC courses amount a little more than brand-enhancing tasters of their more mainstream educational offerings. Moreover, while most universities offer extension education and professional development courses, these activities are only exceptional cases at scale. Systematically to enter the micro-credentialing market would be, for most institutions, a much more significant commitment. Operating in this sphere effectively requires quite different skills of a cultural and academic staff than of traditionally being founding research universities. And it's no small question to how heavily a university wants to invest in this area. On the other hand, given the scale of the predicted demand of the Fourth Industrial Revolution will create, the financial returns from this type of activity are potentially significant. One interesting question is how much this is a new market or how much, for example, like the National University of Singapore, you may see it as a way of enhancing your primary market by making courses open only to alumni.

But finally, it's not only that universities are needing to rethink undergraduate education, and also postgraduate education and micro-credentialing, “The 60 Year Curriculum”, but the whole post-secondary sector faces an enormous challenge because of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and very few governments are responding to this challenge. This is a challenge primarily not for individual universities, but for the system as a whole. The traditional distinction between university and vocational education has assumed a certain division of labor, and at least in the West, a certain traditional class structure between, for example, the design engineer and the mechanic. But those distinctions are already incredibly blurred. And increasingly the Fourth Industrial Revolution will require highly technically-skilled workers who do not necessarily need the full suite of graduate attributes that ought to be developed in a university degree. The major technology companies internationally are complaining that the traditional distinction between the engineering and the mechanic is no longer sufficiently nuanced, and that there's a skill base between those two that will be increasingly required and that is lacking in many advanced economies. The German and Singaporean systems with their technical universities have given considerable thought to that labor market challenge and the Singaporeans are of course at the moment of investing heavily in it. But I'd argue that in many other jurisdictions, such as my own, and I would say to China, have yet to think wholisticly about the post-secondary experience. Governments have a key role to play in building an educational system that services the needs of the labor force throughout the whole of the lives of workers and across the spectrum of the skills that will be required.  

The issues that we are considering so far this morning are issues that could well keep you up in the middle of the night. For our graduates, even in a world in which those issues are resolved, uncertainties will still loom large in the world of work because of the very rapid pave of change that is coming in the labor market because of artificial intelligence. In that context, it's a burden on universities to think about what it means to be a university system for the future. And for governments not only to invest in the way that was proposed earlier in university research to keep the pace in the international arms race for research, but also to keep the pace in the international arms race for talent development, and in particular for the development of leaders who can navigate a world of increasing complexity and uncertainty, and a world in which cross-cultural competence is increasingly important. The University of Sydney is proud to be thinking through those issues and particularly to do so with our high-quality promise with Fudan University in the Western Pacific, which we think is the most excitingly, dynamically growing part of the world. Thank you!


This article is edited based on the recording and has not been reviewed by the speaker.

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