What is the future of the university and higher education in light of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR)? How will 4IR affect traditional disciplines, the curriculum, modes of delivery, research and publications, organisational and management practices and cultures,  and campus itself?

The questions raised regarding 4IR and the future of the university are to a degree universal and shared independently of national or regional settings. Where there are differences these are lodged in differing socioeconomic contexts.
What is clear is that traditional models of higher education, contents and modes of delivery are being questioned in light of rapid technological changes and a changing world of work.

What is needed is a redefining of what universities can do and should be doing.
They need to think out of the box and beyond the physical walls of lecture halls, university buildings and the campus. And they need to, as best they can, prepare for what former United States secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld famously called the “unknown unknowns” —the unknowns we do not even know we do not know. Amid the wicked problems of our time, and our own societal and economic context, our education as a whole needs to be rethought, and higher education has a crucial role to play. But not in its traditional form.

What is often emphasised is the need for new skills and an education system, whether primary or tertiary, that fosters and embraces 21st-century skills often thought of as soft skills aligned to the much talked about four Cs — communication, creativity, critical thinking and collaboration — and a colleague recently also added a fifth C, that of computational intelligence. The latter emphasises how systems are designed to mimic and in some areas even trump the human brain in terms of data processing.

These are all skills important to the 4IR economy that, unlike the knowledge economy of the digital revolution — in which the custodians of higher-degree knowledge reigned supreme —will rely on entrepreneurship and innovation.

The question is how such skills can be incorporated into the university curriculum and, maybe even more importantly, how universities beyond the curriculum can foster, as well as employ, 21st-century skills in all its operations.

Borders are porous and a curriculum can no longer be something taught in a classroom or a degree, and it cannot be owned by just one university, discipline or lecturer. Instead, the teaching project must be seen as an extension of the university as a whole.

This is dependent on universities not being ivory towers and instead being spaces that connect with the communities they form part of, provide a platform for innovation and experimentation and where communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking is the framework for teaching and learning. In this way, teaching will be highly effective but at a low cost and provide for students to apply knowledge.

With new online offerings and increased opportunities for completing whole degrees online, the teaching role of universities is subsiding and instead students increasingly come on campus to meet other students and to socialise.

In this context classrooms become agoras and forums where people meet to exchange ideas rather than to have content and curricula dictated to them. Instead, lectures in the traditional form will take place off campus and sometimes online, using technology that augments and enhances the learning experience in ways that provides for customisation and one-on-one tuition. Classrooms continue to be low tech but high energy when students and faculty come together to share and discuss ideas.

Such a model also provides for a curriculum of smaller customised and niched modules that either build up to a degree or that is used for further studies and advanced professionalisation.

Equally, we need to provide for a multitude of formal and informal ways of engaging with the university and of accessing the university, degrees and individual course offerings. The same goes for flexibility in assessments.

Lifelong learning is about keeping the doors of learning institutions open and to have them adapt to the changing needs of the students rather than the other way around. This means providing for students to set their own study pathways, whether this be one of pursuing a full-time degree, a series of short courses, studying alongside a work placement or working full time.

The truth is this is already the reality for most students. Also, no student is the same and no one-size-fit-all models of learning will ever work.

No longer can lecture halls and classrooms be the domains of the lone professor who owns both knowledge and modes of delivery. Instead, lecturers have to form teaching teams to share and co-create knowledge in co-operation with their students, industry and surrounding communities.

This will also be the most cost-efficient way of delivering higher education, and might even provide for new ways of income generation, because students will “pay” for a lifelong relationship with mentors and institutions that come along for the ride and that invest in lifelong achievements rather than three-year degrees.

Thus the future of higher education depends on flexibility, adaptation and use of technology to provide an enhanced learning experience on and off campus, with an emphasis on high-tech but low-cost off-campus solutions and a low-tech but high-energy experience on campus.

Ylva Rodny-Gumede is the head of the International Office and professor in the School of Communication at the University of Johannesburg