University leaders divided over fourth industrial revolution

Presidents agree on need to respond but are warned against being ‘slaves to industry’

March 15, 2017
Woman interacting with robot
Source: Getty

A debate on how universities should respond to the fourth industrial revolution saw leaders split between advocating wholesale changes to teaching to prioritise software skills and warning that such moves would render institutions “slaves to industry”.

Eleven university presidents from South Korea, Indonesia and Turkey tackled the issue during a roundtable meeting at the Times Higher Education Asia Universities Summit, hosted by South Korea’s University of Ulsan and Ulsan Metropolitan City.

The fourth industrial revolution has been defined as technological developments that blur the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres.

Yeon-Cheon Oh, University of Ulsan president, argued that, given the huge changes that will be brought by developments in artificial intelligence and automation, there was a need to provide software education to all students.

“The urgent task…will be reform of curricula,” he said.

He also noted the development in the US of data science degrees covering big data analysis. 

“Asian universities should give attention to this new phenomenon,” said Professor Oh, a former president of Seoul National University.

He argued that universities are “very, very static” institutions resistant to change, asking: “In such circumstances how do we build reform of curricula?”

“I think all the universities all over the world are forced to reform their curricula to cope with the coming new era,” agreed Gu-Wuck Bu, president of South Korea’s Youngsan University.

But he added: “The real problem is the future is unpredictable. We cannot say what kind of job will disappear and what will survive.”

He said that universities must prepare students for “uncertain circumstances” and give them the tools to “explore their way” such as start-up capabilities, which could mean a role very different “from the conventional role of universities”.

Jong-Koo Park, president of South Korea’s Chodang University, said that his institution was seeking to “cultivate creative students” by emphasising broader liberal education.

Kadarsah Suryadi, rector of Indonesia’s Bandung Institute of Technology, said that, given population decline in many developed nations, the largest populations of young people would be in developing countries, meaning that collaboration between the two would be needed in the fourth industrial revolution.

He outlined principles for curriculum reform, including responding to industry, meeting international quality standards and interdisciplinarity – given that developments such as robotics encompassed both electronics and mechanics.

Nak-In Sung, current president of Seoul National University, said: “Implementation of multiple, or at least double, majoring system[s] will be very important.”

Seoul National has plans “to introduce new kinds of graduate schools” including a “big data innovation graduate school”, but “it is not easy still”, Professor Sung added.

However, Umran Inan, president of Turkey’s Koç University, rejected the call for wholesale curriculum reform.

“If we end up devising our curricula so [they’re] now much more software based, then we will be doing a service to industry but not to higher learning and to the future of mankind, in my opinion,” he said.

Professor Inan warned that “when the next jobs are not predictable, even five years from now, the thing to do is not to accommodate but to step back and generalise”.

He agreed with Professor Park’s advocacy of broader liberal education, adding that the “social sciences are probably just as important as software right now. Because the people who can appreciate what social networks can do to the human animal, if you will, are going to be the social scientists.”

Professor Inan warned of tailoring courses too closely to technological developments, saying: “The risk is we are a slave to industry.” He argued that the job of university leaders was to “hire the best people and get out of their way”.

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