Covid-19 hastens university revolution
Former higher education chief says institutions must reinvent or face extinction
Radical disruption, driven by shifting demographics, rapid technological change, globalisation and the coronavirus pandemic is forcing universities to redefine their role and the value they provide to their students and society.
Suvit Maesincee, who resigned as minister of higher education, science, research and innovation spoke to the Bangkok Post just before he tendered his resignation last week. He shared his ideas on challenges faced by universities, what universities of the future will look like and how Thai universities can adjust themselves to change in the world's educational mobility.
THE ROAD AHEAD
Mr Suvit said universities are now facing at least three major challenges. The first comes from changes to the demographic structure of the country itself.
"On one hand, our birth rate has fallen drastically, so universities in the near future will not be able to rely on secondary school graduates any more. On the other hand, the average life expectancy for Thais is expected to improve due to better health technology," he said.
Mr Suvit believes that instead of competing to attract secondary school graduates, universities will need to focus more on retraining and re-skilling people who are already in the job market to help them survive tech disruption.
"As people live longer and work longer they will need to re-skill themselves again and again to keep up with the pace of technological change, so universities will have to expand their customer base, be more flexible and focus on more than just attracting secondary graduates," he said.
Mr Suvit said the current traditional model of universities as places at which students spend four years to get a degree for the rest of their lives will become irrelevant. Institutions will have to overhaul their curriculum to be more flexible and enable each student to learn at a pace that best suits their abilities and engage with content that is most beneficial to them.
Instead of focusing on providing students with the skills needed to turn them into able workers, universities should prepare students to become lifelong learners, he said.
"Universities must teach students to learn to think, analyse and appraise. Universities must transform themselves into learning spaces for students."
Mr Suvit said the next challenge universities face is technological disruption.
He said robotics and artificial intelligence technologies are transforming all industries, including the education sector.
Online learning has put half the colleges and universities in the United States at risk of shutting down over the next few decades because students can get comparable and affordable education over the internet without needing to live on campus or attend any classes in person, according to Mr Suvit.
"Technologies have evolved to a point that people can learn at any time, anywhere. If universities do not move quickly to transform themselves into educational institutions for a technology-assisted future, they risk becoming obsolete.
"The Covid-19 situation is a good example. We've seen how quickly schools and universities worldwide were forced to adopt online learning and distance learning. And people are getting used to it. I believe the adoption of online learning will continue to persist in the post-pandemic era," Mr Suvit added.
The minister said another challenge which universities cannot escape from is globalisation.
"The world has already become a big economic bloc with many smaller blocs connected to each other inside of it. Universities have to educate their students to be global citizens who have a global perspective," he said.
Mr Suvit believes universities in the near future will face more competition from foreign institutions which are also struggling with a declining number of students.
"The top institutions in the world will expand their services to new markets to find more customers. There will also be a free flow of talent. If Thai universities cannot improve their standing in the global stage, students will turn their back on them," said the former minister.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Mr Suvit believes universities of the future will become places for people of all ages.
"Students will be able to create their own customisable degrees and teachers will create learning plans for students which will enable each student to learn at a pace that best suits their abilities and engage with content that is most beneficial to them.
"The old 'one-size-fits-all' model is outdated and has no place on the agenda of the institutions of tomorrow.
"Teachers will become facilitators of learning and students will have more control of their own learning journey."
Mr Suvit argued that universities will move towards a mix of degrees and shorter cycle courses. They'll also work with industry partners to co-create qualifications that respond to a shifting industrial climate and move rapidly with the changing needs of the workforce.
"Flexible learning experiences will be available on-demand 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and will be tailored to what each individual wants to achieve.
"Students will be able to study in multiple modes, switching seamlessly between on-campus, blended or wholly online, to suit their lifestyle and fit study with work and other activities," he said.
THE NEED FOR A NICHE
Mr Suvit said universities of the future should find their own niche or focus on a particular area that matches their expertise.
"The business model of being a multipurpose university with a combination of a range of degrees and faculties will not work. University administrators will have to choose the path they want and focus on a particular area such as teaching or certain types of research.
"Universities must also co-locate themselves with industry partners so they can collaborate on projects that solve real-world problems. They will become precincts of innovation that actively apply research for the benefit of communities," he said.
Mr Suvit also urged universities to overhaul their curriculum to keep subject knowledge up to date, close outdated majors and open new ones that are in line with the government's policies.
"At present, most universities in Thailand are still doing the same, providing whatever courses that can attract students to stay financially healthy," he said.
Mr Suvit said universities that fail to adapt and bring in enough revenue to cover their costs will be forced to downsize, merge with other institutions or even close down.