Making universities fit for purpose

The editors of the book, “Fit for Purpose? The Futures of Universities”, shared highlights and their thoughts during the special launch of the publication at the WOU City Campus on 28 January 2023.

Speaking at the event organised by WOU’s George Town Institute of Open and Advanced Studies (GIOAS), Jan Wouter Vasbinder, said the book aims to inform and inspire discussions on key issues that must be addressed if universities are to be fit for the purpose of equipping learners for the future, in the face of accelerated changes in the world.

WOU Board of Governors Chairman Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon introduces the editors.

Vasbinder, founder of Para Limes, Netherlands, said the changes have led to “differences between the knowledge produced and taught in universities, and the knowledge needed in a continuously evolving society”.  He said universities must be able to cope with the changing conditions to remain sustainable.

He read a chapter that discusses the history of universities, including the Humboldt University model whose success is based on four ingredients: education and research; academic community of scholars and students; a joint responsibility of public and private sectors for the university; and academic freedom and independence.

Another chapter questions whether universities have fulfilled the tasks bestowed by society to contribute significantly to solutions for sustainable human wellbeing, civilisation and security for all, through education and cutting-edge research.  It included suggestions on how to make universities fit for the future.

The book was published in December 2022.

Vasbinder concluded: “It is the young people, who are at the beginning of their productive lives, who will transform the present into the future. Universities can be set to be future-ready or ready for purpose in the future if they can deliver students who are future ready.”

Jonathan Y H Sim, co-editor, and a lecturer at the National University of Singapore (NUS), is working with NUS Teaching Academy to explore the impact of artificial intelligence on higher education, and propose how the university can embrace AI to prepare students to be future-ready and for academics to be ready for purpose in the future.

He talked about the new chatbot, ChatGPT – one of the many emerging AI devices – which can write essays, answer multiple choice questions, and generate programming codes.

Sim offers his insights as Vasbinder (seated, centre) and Tan Sri Dr Koh look on.

He felt educators are at risk because students may find that the chatGPT can teach better, stressing, “Educators need to add value by embracing AI in their teaching so that students still want to come to university.”

Sim gave two ways educators can embrace AI.  Firstly, instead of asking students to write essays, educators can grade them on how well they edit the essay generated by chatGPT. The learning objectives will shift, and educators may be reluctant since it entails a lot of work to change every assignment for a course, he added.

Secondly, he suggested educators move away from grades since AI can do content generation, and focus on building up the students’ portfolio in terms of teamwork, leadership, and such.

Sim is exploring the impact of AI on higher education, and its use.

He summed up: “Educators should consider how AI can augment and assist them, adding value to the work they do, rather than as replacing them, and how AI helps in human flourishing, like writing better.”

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