It was with the 18th century Industrial Revolution that education was brought down to earth from the ivory-tower, that is, to more practical considerations/applications than the chimerical and ideal. Since then the contestation has swayed both ways, at times pushing the pedantic force (scholars), at others the ground troops (professionals). With the advent of Fourth Industrial Revolution dynamics, particularly artificial intelligence (AI), the battle may have been permanently shifted in the latter's favour: contraptions can now do the thinking, researching, writing, comparing, citing, and collating far faster than the intellectual, in fact, making the intellectual increasingly redundant before our very eyes, and ultimately obsolete in his/her own domain. If that is not enough to push the point, genetically modified geniuses seem only a push-button away from blowing away the natural human mind completely, even as the very product of the once almighty human knowledge springboard.
What does that mean for university-level teaching and researching? If they were not prioritised in the past, universities have no choice but to bring them into the policy-making panoply now: educating tomorrow's leaders, and promoting novel thinking and innovation are but 'start-ups', to divulge in the new 'lingo'. Public universities have commendably sought these goals in their broadest senses, but have also had to deal with the bureaucracy public education entails (from setting curricula implementation and monitoring performances; then getting hamstrung in adjusting to curricula changes because of a large bureaucratic population trained in the 'old' style; and, of course, diminishing budget allocations against spiralling demands). Compensating for some of these built-in causes of insufficiency as well as the glacial progression emanating from sprawling public institutions, Bangladesh could not but turn to private universities from 1993. Originally a massive hit, these have since multiplied manifold times, as one would expect in any free market, almost to the point that survival, and because of it, profit-making, has put educational advancements on a permanent downward trajectory: the resources for innovation are few and far in between, but once adopted, curricula adjust to changing technologies and knowledge too slowly to remain in the driver's seat. All of these have resulted in a retrogressive impulse. Barring the occasional pioneering effort here and there, education might become the most promising private industry to plunge so disastrously because of the technological changes underway, among other factors.
Surviving in the 21st century requires rethinking, but mostly outside the traditional box. With the Fourth Industrial Revolution spawning unlimited new technologies of direct classroom relevance, all universities seem set to be reduced to lowering admission standards just to make both ends meet, and thereby diminish the classroom intellectual quality. In turn, faculty defection, that is, out-migration of the prized professors, is set to rise in similar fashion as coastal erosion migrants seeking higher grounds. Fearing the loss of their top-notch professionals, universities may pamper them so much as to dampen even their innovate capacities, thus the end-result is a worsening intellectual outcome than the fast-evolving Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies need.
This is not just a Bangladesh problem, though it may be most evident here, but education across the board is facing such a crunch, with those surviving better than the others which have institutionalised, to whatever degree, those much-needed innovative capacities behind the steering-wheel today. This requires keeping abreast of concurrent debates in the literatures, most visible through peer-reviewed publications (far more than sumptuous conference presentations or hefty media coverage of these), a viable student body (preferably graduates) where this thinking may sink, and ample resources faculty and researchers can turn to in order to convert thoughts into practical outcomes (publications or innovations).
Turning digital is an inevitable switch, the sooner done, the quicker the competitive ladder climb (and conversely, the more retarded the switch, the lower the academic standards and the onset of the automatic vicious cycle to a seemingly bottomless pit). Then the game faces the intrinsic survival challenges. In a January 2018 piece, Farnam Jahanian identified four of them set to hit any institution in the education business anywhere: fostering entrepreneurship; encouraging collaboration with the private sector; promoting diversity and inclusion; and exploring the nexus of technology and society (4 ways universities are driving innovation, World Economic Forum Newsletter, January 17, 2018). They are not as seductive in implementation as they are on paper since they are too mundane to easily capture attention, and must also function against the vagaries of differential development, and thereby, infrastructural capacities (largely relevant between countries than within them).
Fostering entrepreneurship, for example, has readily been taken up in many business schools. The problem here is that what entrepreneurship means in a developed country (DC) is steadily differing from what it means in a less developed country (LDC): with fewer institutionalised spaces, LDC entrepreneurship remains as landlocked in business school as it begins to spill over into the DC social or political realm, even, increasingly, harmonise with environmental or SDG (Sustainable Development Goal) priorities. Just as the LDC thrust misses the key 21st century crowd, or boat, so too does the much-needed collaboration with the private sector, where a majority of students must first seek jobs upon graduation (only to find themselves largely under-equipped), just to keep up with their rising consumption habits: one must never forget the Fourth Industrial Revolution appeals to and functions best with expanding consumer consumption. This collaboration in the LDC context implies becoming a tool of the private businesses, simply because it has more disposable resources than the typical university, when, by contrast, such DC collaboration involves two mature, viable, and independent institutions pairing or squaring off in transactions (often resulting in a clear and certain pathway from graduation to employment in that particular business, as is increasingly true of health-related topics). Promoting diversity, the third challenge, within an LDC setting typically means bringing in a rural-urban embrace, whereas the DC counterpart is more national-international, with the vast difference between both setting off the slippery 21st century pathways. Finally, the LDC technology-society space is far more tenuous and fragile given the lower technological contraptions invoked than the DC counterpart, again exposing the taller LDC task than the DC burden.
These can be overcome; and how that happens opens another discussion, postponed for the next Scopus piece. Suffice to say the ball lies in the private sector to shape education in any which way it can, with the key victim being the ivory tower denizens, and the key villain profit-making, with technology as the critical instrument. Yet how education can still profit is a subject worth addressing.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance
at Independent University, Bangladesh.