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Presentation to Amity University in Noida, India

"The Role of Higher Education in a Global Economy"
September 26, 2016


Vice Chancellor Sharma, members of the Amity University Leadership Team, esteemed member of the faculty, Ladies and Gentlemen – Good Afternoon. It’s a tremendous honor for a 1984 graduate from the College of Engineering, Poona to be standing here in front of you.  If you were to have asked me to predict the future of higher education at that point in time I doubt if I would have come close to even describing the dramatic changes that we have already seen in last three decades, nor would I have been able to sufficiently describe the tremendous impact that the field of higher education is having locally, and globally, as it becomes a driver not just of social mobility but rather of globalization and economic development.

People who know me will tell you that I tend to raise more questions than I answer – and I intend to do a bit of that today as well.  I believe that that is the role of academics – to stretch thinking, to bring up questions that need to be discussed, and to explore new avenues of thought and progress even if we might feel uncomfortable about changing the status-quo.  But in fairness to the audience, let me provide a brief outline of what you might expect to hear.  I’ll provide a bit of context, share some thoughts on the conflicts facing us today, speak of the rapid changes that are taking place, talk a bit about innovation and leave you with a few thoughts regarding potential paths for the future.

We live in a world that faces tremendous challenges that know no national boundaries – poverty and hunger, terrorism, water shortages and the irreparable harm done to our oceans and lakes by industrialization and increasing population, pollution, the escalating global tensions between development and sustainability, the rise of diseases that are resistant to the very medical advances that were once considered to be the means to eradicate them and, of course, the previously unthinkable complexities and interdependencies wrought by a global economy in which the bursting of a housing bubble in the United States is felt from New Delhi to London, and from Beijing to Nairobi, and a disease in North-West Africa can lead to fear and chaos thousands of miles away.

Today, more than ever before, we need to recognize that the key to solving these problems is the understanding that that no one people, no single group or party, no nation by itself – no matter how wealthy or powerful – can address all these issues.  The key is the development of an informed and engaged global citizen, and education is the foundation to that development. I am reminded of Horace Mann, often considered as the first great American advocate of public education, who said, “Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.” And yes, it is the great equalizer, a tremendous force that transforms people through enabling them to get to know each other, breaking down barriers, preconceived notions and fears as students and faculty work together, and learn from each other. In today’s world these interactions and the power of higher education are more important than ever before.

In this context it is reasonable for us to ask a very simple question: Have we, in higher education, really progressed over the last three decades? The world has definitely been transformed as technology has not only made the world smaller but also flatter. Technology has completely altered the way we collect, store and disseminate information and the consequent advances in telecommunications have changed the way we all think and act. Capital moves across borders instantaneously and the movement of products, people and services is faster than ever before – isolationism is definitely not an option. While cross-cultural influences have always been part of the modern world, today they are ever more powerful because of their immediacy.  We access the same information, the same web sites, buy products made all over the world and, at times, do not even know if we are being assisted on the phone, or on the web, by people next door or across the ocean. But education, the dissemination of knowledge and the preparation of the next generation, has stayed relatively constant. Yes, there have been changes in the mode of delivery and of teaching but essentially we would be hard-pressed to point out distinctive advances in modality, scope and extent of learning from even a century ago.

One would think that over the centuries the definition, or description of universities would have changed. In the 1800s John Henry Cardinal Newman, an Oxford Academic, founder of the Catholic University of Ireland, and noted educationist and theologian remarked that a University was “The high protecting power of all knowledge and science, of fact and principle, of inquiry and discovery, of experimentation and speculation; it maps out the terrain of the intellect.”

On a lighter note, in 1936 R.M. Hutchins, President of the University of Chicago, defined it as, “A series of separate schools and departments held together by a central heating system…a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking.” Both these descriptions are appropriate even today. At some level that’s very reassuring but it is also deeply disturbing at another level that, despite the passage of time, we have not changed.

Progress has been made though. We have changed in many ways from the times of Plato’s academy where a few select students learned at the feet of a learned master, moving to larger numbers of students in lecture halls, assisted by technology to ensure that lectures were brought to life using multimedia tools. In today’s world it is possible for people at different locations to be brought together in a single classroom through video-conferencing facilities and there are experiments under way to even enable a closer approximation of face-to-face interaction between people separated by continents using holograms. One does, however, wonder sometimes if we have through all this progress – gone backwards at least in terms of being able to communicate and socialize.(A Snap in Time) It is said that the more things change – the more they stay the same. One has only to look at this progress in light of the wonder and awe felt by Samuel May in 1855 in describing the use of a chalk board for the first time:

“…in the winter of 1813 & '14 … I attended a mathematical school kept in Boston…On entering [the] room, we were struck at the appearance of an ample Black Board suspended on the wall, with lumps of chalk on a ledge below, and cloths hanging at either side.  I had never heard of such a thing before.” …and then assess whether true progress in learning, in assessing and acquiring knowledge has really been made.  At that point in time one sat in front of a black board, today we sit in front of white boards and video screens.  We have progressed from video screens in the classroom to those at home, effectively enabling the transfer of information from learned teacher to student at different locations.  Yes, we have moved from text books to electronic content and even MOOCs, from a single test or exam given to a class to more individualized questions.  But – have we really changed the modality and scope of learning?  Have we taken advantage of the flatter, smaller world to bring the very best to each student or to enable larger numbers to access the very best levels of education?

Universities of today are still based on the needs and circumstances of yesteryear, ranging from fixed periods of study, being geographically constrained to a location, and with faculty by and large still taking the position that they, as a group, know what the student needs – not just today but even a decade into the future, irrespective of the fact that academia is known to be behind the times, and that we face an increasing challenge of preparation for the workforce of today and tomorrow.

In contrast to the faculty and administration who are largely still cautious visitors to the digital world, our students are true digital natives – focused on needs being met 24/7 and at will, irrespective of location, self-assured of their rights as consumers in being able to demand what they need rather than what they are told they should need, keen to learn by doing rather than just by listening to lectures and by rote memorization, using technology to leverage their time and efforts, focused on outcomes even at a very short time scale and more likely than not to work as members of a group forsaking individual effort for the efforts of a team

This conflict continues to grow as one compares the role of a traditional university with that needed to be played by a modern one. The Universities of the 19th and 20th centuries largely focused on teaching, with research being conducted for the sake of discovery and development of new knowledge. While some universities were involved with R&D, by and large this was not the norm and product development was almost considered beyond the pale. A lot of value was placed on service to the profession but the aspects of outreach were rarely conducted beyond those in the form of extension services by others or as paid consultancy by the faculty. In contrast, there is an expectation today that universities will actually conduct research and development for the purposes of economic development and to sustain the region. Far from just being considered the learned social and cultural centers of a community, a modern university is expected to be an economic driver for the region, both creating wealth and attracting investment and entrepreneurial talent in, and around, it.

As an urban research university UTA is committed to not only providing a top notch education but also to perform research and development linking discovery and technology commercialization.  Our research institute, UTARI, enables close collaboration with the corporate world and government agencies providing unique affordable solutions to complex problems.  It not only builds strong partnerships with some of the largest companies in the area but draws a number of others through its outreach.  A start-up lounge, the Shimadzu Institute and our Silicon Valley commercialization office in San Jose are just examples of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in place, serving both the university and the community.  The establishment of new companies based on intellectual property created at the university and to add economic wealth to the region through this activity are key drivers for the future.

We recognize that companies do not succeed overnight and TMAC serves to accelerate growth through delivery of hands-on business management, technology and operations solutions.  Over the past few years TMAC has helped more than 5,000 companies gain more than $2.5 billion in sales, creating or saving more than 25,000 jobs – showing that universities such as ours can excel at not just education, but also the generation and transformation of intellectual property into products, and the implementation of theory into practice to build and grow businesses.

Given this, it is no small wonder that our graduates are highly sought after, many finding jobs in the DFW Metroplex and globally, at highly competitive salaries and with offers being made even prior to graduation.

It is important to understand that the “flatter” world with unprecedented electronic connectivity has resulted in global mobility where national borders are no longer seen as constraints for the sharing of knowledge and information. Students and faculty can essentially move more easily and, when combined with the prevalence of a “Google” world, knowledge and ideas flow more freely. Knowledge today has become the primary driver of social mobility and of the prosperity and well-being of individuals and nations resulting in a dramatic change in the economics of education through facets of global competition. The global economy has also created a need not just for a better educated workforce but also a more specialized one with an emphasis on immediately applicable skill sets.

The changes in environment that have resulted in increasing conflict between traditional models of higher education and the characteristics needed from universities in the 21st century bring with them tremendous forces of change. Some are related to the very definition of a “student” and their high level of comfort as digital natives in a world driven by the fast pace of technology and innovation versus the relatively slow pace of change in academia; whereas other factors such as the future value of degrees in comparison to “knowledge on demand” need to be considered rapidly and changes implemented to meet these demands while still ensuring the overall development of the individual as part of a learned and informed citizenry.

Higher Education, in general, is focused not just on creating an educated citizenry but developing tomorrow’s workforce. This needs to be now done not just through conventional degree-based academic programs but also through executive and continuing education programs in areas of need. This can be accelerated and made more efficient through the facilitation of partnerships among institutions, government, and the corporate world. There is a critical need, based on demand, for a major shift in educational methods, away from passive classroom lecture based degree courses toward interactive, collaborative learning experiences, provided when and where the students need the knowledge and skills. The constraints of time, space and location are alleviated by technology and enable not just flexibility but also enhanced modalities of learning and cause the blurring of the various stages of learning throughout one’s lifetime resulting in a continuum from K-Gray.

Traditionally universities and colleges revolve around the core of teaching and scholarship and in the U.S. this results in a clear segmentation with the very highest levels being held by the doctoral research institutions which themselves are classified in three groups by the Carnegie Foundation based on the level of research awarded and conducted. UTA is one of an elite group of 115 ranked at the highest level.

In the 21st century, society seeks a lot from institutions of higher education most often seen first as a shift in emphasis within the university away from simply distributing and analyzing knowledge, to creating and applying knowledge, and activities resulting in “innovation,” “creativity” and “entrepreneurship.” The business model has also changed resulting in an addition to the set of private and public not-for-profit institutions by the for-profit institutions with an increasing tendency for society to view the university both as an engine for economic growth and revenue generation through the greater dissemination of new knowledge resulting in the proliferation of for-profit institutions which, among other aspects, have resulted in an increase in enrollment at private for-profit specialized colleges and universities.

While enrollment is falling at a number of state-supported institutions across the U.S., it has been increasing in the for-profits driven by greater flexibility, digital education, and added relevance to the work force. UTA is one of the few traditional public research universities that is still increasing its enrollment buoyed by its reputation for the generation of highly skilled graduates ready to hit the ground running in the workforce. While our in-seat population is increasing at a good rate, the on-line population is growing at an unheard of pace with an increase of over 25% over last year’s numbers in the fall semester.  The weakening influence of government regulations and the emergence of new competitive forces, driven by changing societal needs, economic realities, and technology, are already driving a massive restructuring of the higher education enterprise, which is finally showing the early stages of the appearance of a global knowledge and learning industry.

There are over 30 million people in the world today who do not have an opportunity to attend a university and within a decade there will be 100 million university ready people. Yet, access is often curtailed by increasing costs and debt. Sir John Daniels, former head of the British Open University notes, in most of the world, higher education is mired in a crisis of access, cost and flexibility. In recent months there has been an almost singular focus on the cost of a college education and a stated legislative demand to reduce it, leading to a focus on debt generated. I’m proud that UTA enables the highest levels of excellence in education with one of the lowest levels of debt – in fact the second lowest in the U.S. of national universities and the first in the set of public universities. Access and excellence is being bridged at affordable cost.

It is in this context that we must return to the age-old debate about “Teaching” versus “Learning”, and about bridging access with excellence. Advances in technology and the ability to use modes of digital instruction have made it possible to enhance the reach of education making it pervasive by removing some of the constraints of geographic co-location and of synchronous instruction. In addition we now have the ability to truly incorporate different learning styles and allow for students to learn at different rates enhancing the individual experience. A faculty member is no longer constrained by the limits of the “lowest common denominator” and can, at the same time, accelerate the rate and extent of learning of those who are advanced while focusing in on the building of basics and a firm foundation for those that need a much higher level of attention. We have always spoken of education as being the great equalizer providing opportunities for social mobility and economic growth. Technology now provides the ability to reach a much larger audience enabling knowledge to be provided when, and where needed, and in the form required. The big question for us is whether we are ready to embrace such change.

In light of these advances, higher education is indeed at a crux. We have the tools to now allow for learning based on individual ability rather than on some aggregated norm for a group as is done in a classroom. Thus learning can be at the pace and rate that best suits each individual. The use of digital instruction essentially makes the concept of a university bound faculty moot. The very best individuals from across the globe can be assembled, from both institutions of higher education, and from society at large to teach a course or in a program. Imagine the power of being able to learn from the very best talent from Mumbai one day, New York the next and London the third – all while sitting at this university, miles away.

Distance and travel time between locations are no longer barriers and this changes the role and meaning of being employed by a single institution. The very definition of student will change.  No longer restricting knowledge to a set of people with similar characteristics since instruction (or rather learning) will be based on ability and desire rather than chronological age or advancement in class. Also since different people can come to the same program or even course with different levels of background and ability passing a course becomes an issue more of competence rather than time in seat. In the future as knowledge becomes available to all on demand, the definition of conventional degrees and their value will effectively drop due to the ability to determine individualized curricula and gain knowledge as needed.

Consider the potential of students being able to choose modules from a library of information, developing courses and certificates based on levels of interest and prior learning. Certificates, specializations and badges could be the norm with these being aggregated to enable a degree. In this format the student, and dare I say “consumer,” defines the curriculum within pre-set bounds.  Consider the effectiveness of such a model in meeting workforce needs or enabling an individual to rapidly gain specialized knowledge in an area pertinent to their field. The long years needed by academia to meet changes in the world will be a nightmare of the past as flexibility and agility become the coin of the realm.

It is under these circumstances that one now needs to re-envision Universities. No longer bound by location, education truly takes on a global perspective with teachers and students coming together across the previous bounds of time and space and effectively engaging with the widest possible audience, simultaneously enabling both socio-cultural change and economic development.

But to do this we must radically rethink how access, excellence and impact are brought together. Institutions of higher education today are by and large still focused on high cost, low technology, residential education and on the outmoded idea that quality in education is linked to exclusivity of access and extravagance of resources denying the fruits of higher education to billions of young people. Our current paradigms for higher education, the nature of our academic programs, the organization of higher education, the way that we finance, conduct, and disseminate knowledge, will need to adapt to the demands and realities of our time ensuring that we

  • Provide global access;
  • Remove bounds of co-location and synchronous instruction;
  • Enable multi-, cross-, and inter-disciplinarity;
  • Assess knowledge rather than “time in seat”;
  • Re-envision the definition of “disciplines” and “qualifications”;
  • Provide flexibility in schedule, and
  • Keep pace with a rapidly changing world.

It is only when we do this that academia will regain the prominence it once had – being a leader for society and hub for intellectual, and socio-economic change – rather than what it is today – slow, reactive and behind the times. The future, however, is not new. It is one that comes from the ages, expanding access through technology and enabling Plato’s concept of a learned teacher instructing a few pupils to be democratized without losing the essential individual attention and of students being prepared for a global economy. 

In fact, one could argue that we will be enabling exactly what Sir Henry Bartle Frere, Chancellor of the University of Bombay exhorted of the first class of graduating students in 1862 when he said, “I would beg of you to recollect that you are no longer pupils of any single school but graduates of a University. Your standard must henceforth be, not that of your masters, or even of the government to whose service some of you might devote yourselves, but of the whole educated world.”

Transforming the University to Serve a Global, Knowledge Based Society is not only possible but is being done today and I invite you to visit the University of Texas at Arlington to see how we are driving change at an unprecedented pace, engaging social, economic, technological, and market forces to adapt to the world of tomorrow – as we meet the needs of our students today.

Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to speak with you. I hope I leave you with thoughts to ponder, and questions to be answered as each of you reflects on your roles in this future, one where we meet the needs of billions in a flatter, smaller world and one where knowledge is available on demand, as and when needed, and each student is able to access what is needed based on ability alone.