Higher education institutions must adapt or die.
I’ve heard the words “adapt or die” many times regarding education institutions over the years. Things change, so institutions must adapt. Every time we think they’ll become obsolete; these organizations find a new way to remain relevant. I’ve read many articles saying technology such as artificial intelligence (AI) will be the end of higher education. If we assume these institutions remain as they are today, yes, those who don’t adapt to the times will fail. That is a historical fact. Any business that opts to ignore the writing on the wall and stick to what they’ve always been doing eventually disappears, hence the phrase “adapt or die” persists.
In fact, higher education has changed in the last 20 years. Many universities offer online courses to capture more students in their promotional web and render their programs more accessible to more people. Many have also created highly beneficial relationships with government and private companies, where students are curated towards job openings that already exist as they study. Higher education institutions are businesses led by clever people that learn how the world is changing, and the better ones learn to build new business models to satisfy demand.
These organizations are trying to sell young people the prospect of a secure financial future: a good job that pays well. Thus, many colleges and universities have recently taken additional steps to partner with companies that have specific needs and fashion the programs to fit students in certain programs to the specific job requirements of the partners. This way, the client organization gets trained students, the students have a great story to tell, being hired right after graduation, and the education institution can promote the story. It is a win-win-win.
It is a great strategy because students want to apply to a college or university that will help them get a job. If the institution can tell students, “apply in this program and a job is waiting for you when you graduate”, it’s a great selling point for students and parents looking for placement. This trend is getting popular in my city and given its success at all levels, I suspect the model will spread and once more, the education organizations that adapt will do well.
So, knowing these establishments won’t just evaporate, the question is HOW will they be changing over the next 20 years. As a futurist, I write a lot about the future of work, changes in society and the economy. This article describes how the job market will change between now and year 2040. Since the job market is what the higher education institutions look towards to keep thriving as businesses, how will the major shifts change these institutions offerings?
Here are the two main takeaways from “The Job Market in Year 2040” article:
1. By 2040, we could automate all paid tasks using available technologies, including new tasks emerging from future technological disruptions (thanks to artificial general intelligence (AGI) and a huge network of narrow AI).
2. We will still want some tasks done for us by humans because we will always want some things from another human being. Whether it is caregiving, being served at a gourmet restaurant, healthcare or education, our biological need to socialize, and connect through our biochemistry. It is programmed into our DNA. Even though automation will be more efficient at everything compared to human experts, sometimes we’ll want the human touch.
So, the job market of the future will look very different, and the type of worker we’ll need will be quite different too. In approximately 20 years’ time, we’ll most often want things done in the background, in an environmentally and energetically efficient way. That’ll be the artificial intelligence (AI) and the robot’s task. They will do analysis, data crunching, move things around, make sure we produce what we need to satisfy demand, run our economy, do lots of research, diagnose our diseases, shop for us. You name it, it’ll do it with optimal efficiency and some AI will look for ways to make things even more efficient.
The jobs available to humans will be those that are client-facing or those that involve communication (either emotional communication as seen in the arts, or direct communications as experienced through language). Entertainment, services, education, healthcare, art and other occupations where a personal human touch is important will become a requirement for staffing. Higher education institutions will adapt to fill the role of training our young adults to be excellent artists, communicators, teachers and caregivers in all industries.
People who want to learn things out of passion although automation will be better at their occupation than they ever could would still pay to be trained in those occupations out of passion even though there is little place for them in the job market of the future. I imagine scientists, engineers, builders and drivers of all sorts will still passionately learn their trade out of love of the trade, as if it were an art form, and some will want to learn from other human experiences, supplemented by Internet resources of all sorts.
I cannot even speculate how higher education institutions will change, but they’ll do what they’ve always done to remain relevant. They will hire the experts needed with the appropriate experience and knowledge to prepare students for their future, just like they are doing now. Their approach will probably be different compared to what we see in today’s colleges and universities. The students will need to gain direct experience from the industry through proper mentors and will only need to learn how to find the information they need since all information will already be available through the Internet. What they’ll want to gain is real knowledge and hands on experience. We can expect university and college level coop and apprenticeship programs to become prevalent to give high quality experiences to learners.
At that point, diplomas won’t have the same meaning as they do now. Being able to pass such courses and getting the paperwork won’t be as helpful as creating strong ties with companies and professionals as students practice their skills in their apprenticeships. We can see this trend even today in industries like high tech where employers don’t care so much where students received their degrees. They care a lot about real project experience.
The key to the success of higher education will therefore be experiential education.
Also, given the nature of the demand for human workers, the best students won’t always be the most skilled. Success in future occupations will be about how the worker makes the client feel. In a world where all tasks can be done more efficiently using automated systems, the client is looking for an amazing human connection, not a less efficient and more expensive worker. Compassion, love, understanding, communication skills, humor and an ability to connect will be the universal skills on demand for all occupations, with automation-enhanced technical skills tagging along for the ride.
These are the characteristics of the future human worker, and therefore that’s what future higher education institutions will strive to produce.
The biggest changes in the education system will occur at the elementary, intermediate and high school levels. These need to be reformed completely to train our youth. The younger generation will need to learn how to become great experiential learners and amazing human beings to have a shot at limited seats in future college and universities.
I for one, am looking forward to a day where AI and robots handle all the technical stuff. I think we can be a much happier society if we get to focus on what we like most as humans: human interactions, positive emotions, pleasure and creativity. This is the future we can build, and it is the one we’re looking at if trends continue the way they are.
Imagine what kind of world we will live in if we direct our whole education system towards making compassionate, communicative and funny human adults, not out of a moral directive to do so, but out of real economic demand. We can engineer this new world just by nudging it in the right direction.