Most universities have reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic by going online with their teaching programmes. This is part of their response to make teaching and the completion of the academic year a priority. Students need to achieve their qualifications and enter the economy to start working and start making a contribution almost ‘at any cost’.
The common mood amongst academics suggests that this is temporary:- there will be a vaccine coming out soon and ‘things will get back to normal’. Universities are notorious for their stickiness when it comes to changing the way in which they do things and it would be a pity if these institutions do not realise that there is not going to be a going back to normal and that they have an opportunity now to change and make the work they do super-relevant for the time we live in.
One of the universities in Africa used by the World Bank as an example of what universities should be functioning like in our time, is situated in Kigali. It is a university most people have never heard of and they are unlikely to know about it except if doing a specific search for it and yet they have an extraordinary accomplishment to boast of – more than 80% of their graduates are employed within 6 months of completing their qualifications. This statistic gets even more extraordinary when we consider the fact that almost their entire cohort is drawn from refugee camps in Rwanda – students from distressed backgrounds and with the minimum schooling.
Kepler University does not do the “normal” university curriculum and their VC says that “…if you can find it on Coursera or Wikipedia, we do not see that need to teach it.”
Finding it on these open sources and eliminating the content from your curriculum would leave most universities rather thin and bare in terms of the content they present to the students. In its place Kepler teaches in a way that eliminates the silos in which content get presented at most universities and they focus on teaching soft skills such as creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and problem solving. These skills are being used as the vehicles for packaging the academic content in subject fields. This, combined with a strong focus on experiential learning, helps to set the university apart and make of it a high achieving educational institution.
Later this month, from 11 to 13 December 2020, an important summit will be taking place in South Africa. The members of Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) will be meeting to look at the role of universities in the post-COVID phase. This is going to be an important opportunity to read what the prevailing mood is in the leadership structures of our universities. The stated aim of the summit is to explore, not what happened in 2020, but what the higher education format of the future will be. The organisers are explicit about the fact that they understand that we will never be able to see our universities return to the previous, pre-COVID state and that the summit will have to produce some answers to what the changed profile of higher education institutions will look like as they emerge from 2020.
Will they be able to deliver on precepts that will fundamentally change higher education and the way in which graduates are being shaped?