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The role and opportunities for universities in the digital economy

The role and opportunities for universities in the digital economy
Cisco ANZ VP, Ken Boal reflects on The (University) Presidents' Conversation conference held at University of Queensland in February, 2016
The role and opportunities for universities in the digital economy READ FULL ARTICLE

The role and opportunities for universities in the digital economy

Ken Boal
VP, Cisco ANZ

March 23, 2016
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  • Technology, Innovation

Its often been asked, ‘will universities still be here in 50 years?’ but 2016 is shaping up to be one of the most exciting times in higher education in Australia, with universities taking an active and important role in digitising not only campuses but the wider Australian economy. If Australia is to be a genuine force in the digital economy then universities will need to play several roles; sources of innovation and IP, talent managers and hubs of collaboration.

From a talent perspective, universities must educate our future workforce to be prepared to innovate and thrive in a digital world, not just to be domain specialists. Universities also have an important role to help industry navigate the digital transformation by bringing a broad range of knowledge and IP to the table.

The role of universities in a digital age is not unchallenged though, just as all industries face threats from digitisation, so too does the education sector. Universities need to innovate and face technological change head-on to remain relevant.

With this context in mind, and wearing my dual hats as both the VP, ANZ for Cisco and President of B/HERT (Business & Higher Education Roundtable), it was my great pleasure to partner with the University of Queensland in February to host the Presidents’ Conversation in Brisbane.

This was Cisco’s second time convening a Presidents’ Conversation, following the first event which was held in San Jose, California in 2013. The Chatham House rules-style conference brought together 12 University Presidents and Vice-Chancellors from the world to discuss what digitisation means for the economy, and the role and opportunity for universities.

The teaching and learning function of universities has been particularly transformed by digitisation. Institutions must now educate and prepare students to survive and thrive in a world where technological change is creating – and obliterating - new jobs at roughly the same rate. Teaching students to be more `job ready’ is difficult when there is no clear sense of what future jobs could look like.

According to a recent McKinsey report[1], there is still a disconnect between what educational providers and employers perceive to be necessary in terms of skills for the workforce. 72 percent of educational providers think graduates have the necessary skills needed for employment, versus 39 percent of employers. This creates another collaboration opportunity, where business employers need to do more to identify what skills are needed long term, and for Universities to evolve the curriculum accordingly.

So what are the challenges that universities face today in getting students ready for jobs that perhaps don’t even exist yet? And how can they offer an educational experience that is synonymous with the world that “digital natives” have been born into? The idea that we’re living in an “attention economy” brings with it a range of challenges, given that lecture halls have been the de-facto areas for knowledge transfer in universities, whereas human attention drops off sharply after seven minutes of concentration.  The apparent solutions to educating this new cohort of tech-savvy students are many, but one thing that panellists agreed on throughout the conversation is that higher education is a highly adaptable field in itself.

In addition to the formal aspects of education for an agile, innovative, and resilient workforce and society, universities have an important role as ‘ideal connectors,’ within the digital eco-system. One recent and clear example of this type of collaborative behaviour is Cisco’s partnership with both Curtin University in Perth as the site of the first Cisco Innovation Centre in Australia, and our partnership with UNSW in Sydney for the second Australian site for Cisco’s Innovation Central, which was formally launched last month.

The Presidents’ Conversation was an excellent forum, for global higher education leaders to discuss these issues, and it’s pleasing that this conversation was held on Australian turf, as Australia has the capacity to innovate at scale, and capture the benefits of digitisation as a prime exporter of higher education.

Key insights from the Presidents’ Conversation:

  • Universities must shift the paradigm that rather than being standalone institutions, they are active and important participants within a digital ecosystem. This requires a mind-set of collaboration and open partnerships, so that universities can help to co-create the future and act as advocates for new theories and technologies as they come to life.
  • As educators, universities have the capability, and therefore the onus to put frameworks in place for a new, exciting and at times challenging workforce proposition. To help create a citizenry that has been educated to enable change, cope with change, be resilient, innovate and thrive.
  • Overcome internal bureaucracy to be an important part of the innovation eco-system – creating and fostering innovation within, so that universities are changing and adapting at the same rate as the society, Government and enterprise.
  • All universities have a massive incentive and need to develop and grow their own digital capabilities (including infrastructure, people & programs), as a platform for innovation.

The imperatives for universities in the digital economy are:

  • Become part of the innovation discourse that’s happening not just in education, but at all levels of the community including business and Government
  • They must increase their ability to respond in real time to changes that are happening
  • Get the enabling infrastructure in place, including the underlying technology that will promote innovation in a way that is scalable and secure
  • And finally, universities must crack the collaboration code and look at new models of collaboration with industry
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