The University comes apart

Universities as institutions created by the State and The Church were established about 1000 years ago. The twofold purposes were to educate future citizens to participate in society and to obtain sufficient knowledge to become gainfully employed.

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Tom P. Abeles

Universities as institutions created by the State and The Church were established about 1000 years ago. The twofold purposes were to educate future citizens to participate in society and to obtain sufficient knowledge to become gainfully employed.

While Africa has a scholarly history, the modern, western, university became the dominant institution as a vehicle for imparting European cultural values along with colonization across the continent. The model was adopted whole cloth including internal structure and operation.

With the withdrawal of European control and country independence, there was hope, with the formation of the Association of African Universities (AAU), that the African university could be responsive to African ideas and ideals. Having little experience, the universities looked outward, again, to the United States and Europe for models. Academic institutions, by their nature, are intellectually conservative; thus, as one minister has put it, change is slow.

Today, the increasing ubiquity of high speed internet and the need to address rapidly changing skill sets place all universities, globally, in a disruptive environment, whether in Africa or on another continent. In under-resourced countries, such as in Africa, the institutions are able to selectively access knowledge from global sources and, for the first time to expand what they uniquely provide to students by focusing on relevant national programs and region specific needs. Thus, today, they can reach the goals hoped for when AAU was established almost a half-century ago.

Rwanda’s national university, the University of Rwanda (UR), sits at the crossroads, an institution located in both physical and Internet space. The demand of an ever more complex world means that education needs to be continuous, PreK to university and beyond. That implies the original purpose to deliver both employable skills and skills to function as a citizen becomes continuous from entrance at kindergarten. The passage between graduation from secondary school and entrance to a post-secondary institution becomes seamless as does the role of faculty at all levels.

Two major changes, though, should disrupt how UR should function. First, the rise of the Internet brings the cost to acquire content close to zero, as students are able to travel, virtually, to access both basic knowledge and emerging materials. As noted, above, UR faculty rolls and responsibilities change as the institution selectively emphasizes that knowledge that is unique to the State while collaborating internationally to provide common core content and skills.

Second, there is a global shift to measures of knowledge through standards of competency.

This means that traditional collection of credits by sitting in a class lecture disappear or become selectively optional. This allows for world-class knowledge to be accessible at low cost and frees up scarce institutional resources. Competency measures mean students may advance based on mastery of knowledge. Time to degree is student driven, often less than the credit-based model. This further cuts costs to institutions and to students. What makes this more problematic is that the institutional needs for faculty and staff change requiring new and different skills and functions. Given the current organization and faculty training, there seems no simple path to avoid significant institutional trauma.

For public universities in general and UR, in particular, this means that the institution will need to determine what it offers that meets the needs of the country and what its students can more effectively acquire through other sources either virtually or through institutions that have specific knowledge and a presence in country. While the ideals of the AAU will be realized, they will be provided by a transformed institution.

Though there is 1000 years of university history, the modern research university may be considered to be only about 2 centuries old; and, the emphasis on faculty promotion considerations via academic publishing is seen as much more recent. As the cost of research increases and the function of teaching rises in importance, the need for UR to be defined by its research diminishes.

The ability to collaborate, made easier with the Internet, is increasing across institutions. Thus, UR now has the ability to adjust its level of in-country and collective, global, participation to meet the needs of the institution, its students and the country. The idea of the University as a self-contained, self-directed, “ivory tower” in an Internet age cannot stand.

Rwanda is aggressively providing primary students access to the Internet through the familiar OLPC or one laptop per child, program. Under the standard, K-12, model, that gives the University less than a decade before these students will be entering the University. Globally, the idea of students, even in primary and secondary schools, gaining credit through acquisition of measured competencies (often called “badging”), will result in a growing numbers who have the ability to master skills traditionally provided in post secondary institutions such as UR. This means that students from today’s K-12 programmes will seek such knowledge either through the Internet (as is being demonstrated, internationally) or UR. This movement of students reduces the time when UR can expect to see these new “digital natives” at its door -significantly sooner than a decade from now.

Rwanda, in its efforts to encourage its youngest students to acquire digital skills and to gain digital access, is unleashing a tsunami of knowledge seekers to crash on the doors of UR. Their demands, not met by the University, will be channeled onto the Internet bypassing the University. The idea that “change is slow” within academia cannot hold.

African Universities in general and UR in particular have a rapidly decreasing window to address the changes driven by the growing presence of high speed, broadband, Internet linking universities globally. Additionally, the increasing ability of even Rwanda’s youngest citizens to gain access to the same knowledge, demands change in the education system in general and UR in particular.

The writer is a futurist focusing internationally on both policy and practice on issues of sustainability, renewable resources and post secondary education.

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