Universities must adapt to survive in tech age
are universities ready for the fourth industrial revolution?
the digital revolution set into motion decades ago has accelerated with dizzying speed and scale. the fourth industrial revolution — what Klaus Schwab of the world economic Forum describes as the fusing of technologies and blurring of lines between the physical, digital and biological worlds — has shaken well established industries with a force that has left heads spinning. Journalism, music and entertainment, bricks and mortar retail and the taxi industry are just a few examples. Some will disappear entirely. others will adapt. Could it happen to universities too? if the idea of universities becoming obsolete — as the knowledge economy has taken off — seems impossible, it shouldn’t.
the fact is that knowledge has never been more accessible, or more free, or — worryingly — more dubious in this era of fake news. when it comes to knowledge creation, sharing and mobilization, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for universities to assert their traditional gatekeeper role. there are new sources of competition, redistribution and decentralization of power in the new knowledge economy.
at the same time, all around the world there is a demand for an educated workforce. global competition is fierce, but many employers are starting to ask questions about how well universities are preparing students for life beyond academia.
it’s worth paying attention to these conversations.
with access to six universities and 12 pre-university colleges, montreal, for example, has the highest proportion of post-secondary students of all major cities in north america.
in recent years, there has been a massive, co-ordinated push on behalf of business leaders, government, educators and others to attract and retain international students to our many postsecondary institutions.
montreal’s universities also are in a building frenzy. both the université de montréal and Concordia university are building new science campuses.
last week, the principal and vicechancellor of mcgill university and the rectors of laval and université de montréal published an oped piece calling for the government to reinvest in university research.
one way would be to ask what kind of research is needed, and how to communicate it so it can have a realworld impact on policy, innovation and debate. unfortunately, the traditional academic model remains stubbornly slow to change. (one of my favourite examples: amassing an extensive publication record in academic journals remains a hallmark of a successful scholar, and a key prerequisite in applying for a tenure track job, even though there is a significant body of research demonstrating that almost no one reads research published in academic journals.)
the rise of precarious employment at Canadian universities, particularly among people who are working toward or hold doctorates with little hope of ever getting tenure, should also prompt a rethink. it is estimated that almost half of Canada’s university students are being taught by low-paid sessional, adjunct and contract faculty. it’s an exploitative model leading many potential researchers to pursue their careers outside of academia.
there is no research to suggest universities will be immune to the kinds of industry disruption we’re seeing elsewhere. as a key driver of the economy and society, let’s make sure our university ecosystem is ready for the challenges and opportunities ahead.