A Pragmatic Approach to Higher Education – University 4.0
The 4th Industrial Revolution has changed the industrial practices of manufacturing and production, now transformed by digitization and automation and supported by advanced technologies and techniques. The adjustment process of industry to the latest developments, leading to its structural change, has been named Industry 4.0. This article proposes a mature consideration of the necessity to transform he educational system which trains people to function in the economic life of this new reality. We will start from the essential supposition that the free market is or should be the one that shapes the educational system and not vice versa, which is essential for a healthy industry manifested within a free market economy as a basis for economic progress. Today, industrial development is partly based on a thorough but standardized knowledge base traditionally accumulated and perfected behind the thick walls of academia over a standardized period of time that is required for certification.
University 4.0 should be a response to the demands of Industry 4.0, an innovative perspective with different solutions to new problems which are no longer satisfied by the orthodox paradigm of higher education.
All these 4.0 versions of industry, manufacturing and higher education ought to be translated into a production process that moves in sync with the development of digital and cybernetic technology. We are witnessing our world heading towards a new economic era – the “post-industrial transition” process is now believed to transcend the usual industrial archetype of “men mindlessly operating machines” or “automation supervisors”; we are talking about a transition to knowledge work manifested into physical realities which create situations demanding new answers at a much higher rate than ever before. The valuable data, computing skills, interconnection of systems, platforms and devices, security needs and the prospect of winner-takes-it-all economic competition create titanic struggles, hopefully for the benefit of consumers. The acquisition of data is one thing, but rendering it into industrial achievement remains a matter of the human who befriended the machine and learned about its potential; man-to-machine and machine-to-machine interactions are more and more facilitated by a series of technologies which vary from new robots to innovative assembly procedures, and from data processing to decision-making.
Firstly, we must consider that, given the reality of Industry 4.0, technical education has to be readapted and moulded after it. Thus, the concept of University 4.0 should include technology as an integral part of the educational process and, most importantly, the “comfortable” environment of campuses, lecture halls, spacious classrooms and long corridors has to gradually cede its place to other ways of accumulating knowledge. E-courses, blended learning, training programs and online activity aimed at developing the desired skills allow a higher flexibility to those involved in the learning process. Furthermore, the latter have the opportunity to become accustomed to and learn much quicker about the realities of their future field of work. A pliable and open “student-centric” platform is a step forward to a world which offers more opportunities to students than in the past. Therefore, before responding to the “How?” of the problem, one must always keep in mind that University 4.0 is an idea based on adaptation and concordance with the economy. In order to achieve this, the learning system must consider the following aspects:
(1) A more pragmatic approach to education
In order to provide a sustainable framing to economic development, universities are expected to educate the necessary human resources. However, education is neither the memorization of a large volume of information, nor a by-product of more recent attempts of making learning less or more theoretical. No such outlook could keep up anymore with the digital transformation of economy; universities are expected to educate not only through classical methods, but also through applied activities. The diminished focus on research and academic work does not automatically guarantee that students will be able to interpret and use the very large quantity of knowledge they supposedly receive. The winning hand for a digital economy is not to be found in experiments conducted in higher education institutions. Instead, cooperation between educational and industrial elements results in a more concentrated and even realistic approach to the problem. Just as the State can by no means successfully direct the pattern that the economy follows, higher education can by no means be the engine of the heart of industry, which beats after human enterprise and action. This would be merely false and illusory intellectualism, whereas an educated standpoint is one which is willing to adapt itself rather than seize human activities which do not depend solely on the classical education typical of most universities.
(2) The establishment of partnerships with the big industry players
This particular aspect ought to be self-explanatory. Since the industrial process is the one which implements the directions of a free market economy decided by the consumers, then higher education must work in parallel with companies and institutions even from the very first day the students enlist. Dividing learning frames into the familiar axis of college graduation and job hunting is less and less effective and not in accordance with industrial demands. In spite of encouraging signs which demonstrate a real concern for the preparation of students for their future jobs, it is expected that companies will strengthen and improve their methods of attracting skilled students directly from universities. The trend consists in offering the best training conditions for promising students. Big Tech players have already taken large steps in this direction. American giants Apple, Facebook and Google have specialised recruitment departments and develop coordination frameworks aimed at integrating new employees as fast as possible into the work of their companies.
(3) Individual learning and suitable assessment
The specific division of the industry into numerous branches and specialisations requires a learning process moulded on the individual. Endorsing the individual choices of each student can prove effective and produce responsible people who chose their work path from the very beginning of their higher education. A more restrained array of learning will not necessarily mean poorer knowledge. In fact, past experiences have demonstrated that each time the industry evolved to its next stage, people have met successfully with the new demands. The steam engine of the first industrial revolution, electricity in the second, and more recently computers in the third modern age of industry have not led for permanent forced idleness and redundancy, but the opposite: technological innovation eliminates certain jobs, replacing them with new ones, but it has never eliminated people from work and never will.
At the same time, student assessment in “University 4.0” is conducted not only via paperwork, exams and essays. Students also have the opportunity to be assessed in a “real life” situation, depending on their applied knowledge within a work process they are going to face several times again in the future. Once again, companies can have an important say in this. Prof. John Dewar, Vice-Chancellor and President of La Trobe University, and an early supporter of the University 4.0 concept, points out that “a move away from degrees as the only form of credential offered, towards a more mixed offering of degrees plus shorter cycle qualifications and credentials” is necessary. Assessment would be, in this case, not only the task of professors checking how well the students have absorbed their lessons, but also of institutions, businesses, hubs, factories etc. The latter differ in how they evaluate people and it certainly would not concur with how universities do it, which is by awarding marks and diplomas or honours.
(4) Focus on infrastructure
Only universities with resources that can provide an infrastructure which simulates the industrial environment to its last detail will produce high quality human resources. Although some see this as a replacement of the didactic role of professors, the reality is that these technologies act as essential instruments of learning, not as a rejection of the figure of a mentor or a declaration against the interaction between student and professor. Curricula need to be adapted to the new reality of a learning process accompanied by technology at every moment, while retaining the degree of freedom of choice and promotion of individuality to the highest extent possible. Better infrastructure has to be accompanied by a suitable mentality which focuses on the management of resources in such a way that the newest changes of the market do not overcome the majority of the people and their limited range of personal skills and potential. Ultimately, given that not everyone is involved in the learning or production process in one way or another, there is also the duty of building the foundations of a system accessible to anyone who might contribute to it sooner or later.
University 4.0 ought to be part and parcel of the global industrial system. Its role of maintaining “the cross-border flows of goods, information (and) capital” will be accomplished as long as the aspects above-enumerated are considered by the deciding factors of our societies, be they politicians, entrepreneurs, academics, scientists or civil society groups or others with a direct interest in the industrial world.
The perfect opportunity for the implementation of a different higher education system is offered by the Covid-19 pandemic. We are looking at an unprecedented circulation of data, technological development, innovation and the development of new working solutions and even socio-economic patterns and forms of organisation. Most universities have adopted a “blended learning” style of teaching, and what is remarkable is that there are a lot of higher education institutions that demand that their students physically attend courses at the university site only for experimental activities or research meetings which require the utilisation of technical instruments.
In the past, the idea that higher education is the most important preparatory stage of theoretical training and assessment prevailed. Over the last few decades, along with the emergence of new technologies, the study and work areas could move anywhere they were needed. University 4.0 favours the gain of knowledge by active contributions to the endeavours of actors which shape industry. Moreover, it favours less content and more thinking. Better said, content is to be discovered and constructed rather than “served on a silver platter”. And, while the teaching of basic principles can never be contested, we add to this that teaching of basic methods of working ought to be at the same level of importance. In most situations, higher education teaches the “how” of processes without demonstrating it. Taking any principle for granted is not something that students easily do. When the same principle is explained in an observable context which is unfolding before their very eyes, the same students will believe in the importance of learning and will embrace that of experimenting and working with it, as they are more prone to believe what they see instead of just imagine what they are taught.
When students make the transition between university and work, many have a hard time to adjust to the realities of working life and the differences when compared to the theoretical framework they were reared in, educationally. This is not only due to different assessment and evaluation methods as mentioned before, but also to the unpreparedness of students regarding the idea of “learning, un-learning and re-learning”, of adapting and reacting to real-life and real-time challenges, which vary from human interaction to management of robotic and cybernetic technologies. Supporters of University 4.0 together with tech-enthusiasts all over the world are calling for a reassessment of the teaching process. What is a “university” at the end of the day if not a place where you learn new things? So, why would it not be possible to educate young people anywhere they are needed instead of keeping them isolated from a world waiting for them to finish their studies?
Although “eliminating the on-campus college experience will most likely not be an acceptable possibility” anywhere in the close future, “now is the time for universities to get creative, to respond, reimagine, and reinvent higher education for the new world taking shape”, says James Krouse, Global Director, Solutions Marketing at SAP SE. University 4.0 is a project, and projects may take a long time to implement. Overcoming rigidity, old patterns and entrenched mentalities is just the first step into the future of education.
A conclusive assertion based on what we have mentioned above is that universities will naturally adapt to the new realities of the fourth industrial revolution, just like they did in the past. Perhaps this fourth revolution is yet to be over, and higher education is waiting retrospectively to have the confirmation of the political arena before starting to recalculate the resources at their disposal, their efficacy and ultimately their vey role in this world.
James, K. (2020). University 4.0: A New Take On The College Experience. (online) forbes.com. Available at:https://www.forbes.com/sites/sap/2020/06/05/university-40-a-new-take-on-the-college-experience/#460d1e772de5
Prof. Dewar, J. (2017) University 4.0: Redefining the Role of Universities in the Modern Era. (online) www.thehighereducationreview.com. Available at: https://www.thehighereducationreview.com/magazine/university-40-redefining-the-role-of-universities-in-the-modern-era-SUPG758722027.html
Lapteva, A.; Efimov, V. (2016). New Generation of Universities. University 4.0. Journal of Siberian Federal University
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