John Lennon once said that life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans and it seems that something similar might be true when it comes to technology. Fifty years ago when Neil Armstrong put the first human footprint on the moon we all thought that space travel would be routine by now, as unglamorous perhaps as boarding a budget airline in 2019. As yet however, despite the apparent aspirations of President Trump, that prediction has been spectacularly wrong. Instead what we have seen are technological developments that have completely changed the way we live and work in the form of the internet and its resultant communications revolution and, increasingly, perhaps the biggest game changer of them all – artificial intelligence or AI.
How you view AI may differ depending on how much science fiction you have been exposed to and how old you are. I, for example, have enough grey hairs to keep thinking about Skynet from the Terminator films or even HAL 9000 from "2001," but then I’m just naturally paranoid.
However, the demographic that perhaps really needs to be worrying about the rise of AI is the young, because they could be a facing a workplace which looks nothing like the one we are used to today and which might find the input of human beings worryingly redundant.
Putting all the scare-mongering aside, most informed opinion about the future of work is that we need to find ways of embracing the potential of the new technology by developing a symbiotic relationship with it. But how effectively are we doing this?
According to research by the international talent management firm, Alexander Mann Solutions, not very effectively at all. In their recent poll of HR leaders around the globe, only one in four believed that the next generation of professionals are being prepared for the ubiquity of AI. When asked exactly what skills needed to be developed over a third cited adaptability to change, and one in five identified creative skills.
So what are universities doing to prepare their students for this brave new world?
In terms of educational leaders who are treating this challenge with the seriousness it deserves, among the most vocal and persuasive that I’ve come across recently is not based in the "usual suspects" of the USA or Western Europe or even on the Pacific Rim, but in one of the fastest expanding new universities in Central Asia.
Although he has been President of Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan since 2010, Shigeo Katsu, had a 30 year career with the World Bank before that, which seems to allow him to think well outside the conventional educational "box."
His view is that instead of just teaching students in the traditional way, it is the responsibility of universities to help them understand exactly what sort of workplace challenges they are likely to face in the future, how they can work with new technologies – rather than be overtaken by them - and, crucially, what sort of skills and abilities they need to hone to ensure a successful long-term career.
As he neatly puts it, “Institutions will have to think about what sets the human mind apart from machines and how graduate skills can be incorporated within and around roles taken over by technology. Those that succeed will be the ones that connect human and machine, utilizing what makes the human mind truly unique.”
In practical terms this might mean creating what he calls "stackable" programs where students add courses and modules onto their basic degrees and not just from the one university that is providing the core education, but from a range of partner institutions that might be based anywhere around the globe.
With the aim to become a research university of international renown combining education, research and innovation, Nazarbayev University is looking to educate the next generation of leaders in science, medicine, geosciences, public administration and business to contribute to the future development of the country and the wider region. Core programs and research are enhanced by strategic partnerships with top-ranking universities around the world that include Cambridge University, Colorado School of Mines, Duke University, National University of Singapore, University of Pennsylvania and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. As a consequence, graduates are not only working for the likes of Microsoft, GE and Schlumberger in Kazakhstan, but also securing positions at Apple, BMW, Unilever and Google in the U.S., Europe and across Asia.
What I think is particularly interesting is Shigeo Katsu’s view that universities might need to rethink the relationship between educator and student completely, and approach it in a much more humble and open-minded way. It will mean accepting that in a world which moves at such dizzying speed as this one, no academic can expect to be at the true cutting edge of their field on a continuous basis because there is too much information available and it goes out of date almost as soon as it appears. Consequently teachers may need to become facilitators, encouraging debate and being open to new ideas and opinions from individuals with less formal experience and learning than themselves. And, let’s face it, any dean, president or vice chancellor trying to manage that transition is going to be facing a daunting challenge.
However, assuming that Nazarbayev University really has hit upon something here, it’s a challenge which cannot be ignored. Because, as Shigeo Katsu points out, if the challenge is not met then the whole international university sector risks undermining the inherent value of its brand. Perhaps even more importantly, universities also risks betraying the students it is supposed to serve by preparing them for jobs and workplaces which shortly will no longer exist.