The president of a famous university in Japan was on stage recently talking about the major reform being undertaken to combat technological disruption threatening higher-learning institutions in his country.
He gave a very impressive presentation – complete with a new vision, a five-year plan and short-term actions that will ensure the survival of his university.
“We have no illusion about our future. We may have been a top-ranked university for several decades. We may have chalked up a very impressive record, but we are confronting the inescapable fact that in the current ecosystem, past success doesn’t guarantee future success. No institution is too big to fail,” the outstanding Japanese academic declared to a rapt audience.
The president returned to his seat next to mine. I was curious that his presentation had somehow gone unchallenged. The objective was noble. Drastic changes were inevitable – and “the end of college” forecast had been bandied about for a few years now. But what are the lessons learned so far?
I turned to him and whispered: “What, may I ask, is the biggest stumbling block in your huge, admirable reform project to keep the university afloat in the wake of this tsunami of change?”
Without hesitating, the president replied: “The faculty. The teachers. All of those who should be in the forefront of change. All of those who have been preaching the need for reinventing the university.”
I started to laugh. He stopped me. “I am serious. This is no laughing matter.” Still I couldn’t stop myself.
When I recounted this incident to Deputy Education Minister Udom Kachinthorn during a Facebook Live chat last week, recognition flashed across his face.
“Yes, that’s the real problem. We are facing precisely that issue in our own attempt to launch reform for our higher-education institutes too,” he told me.
The deputy minister, a former president of the prestigious Mahidol University, is embarking on a very ambitious project designed to produce “a new breed of university students”. This new breed will pursue inter-disciplinary courses to fit their career paths in the digital world – or be learning new skills for midlife professional shifts into the new “4.0” ecosystem.
Dr Udom said he was initiating the experiment with three major universities – Chula, Thammasat and Mahidol – whose outstanding records should provide the launch pad for the big change.
But even here, the sense of urgency might be lacking. “A lot of faculty members are still stuck in their comfort zone, I must admit,” he said, after I asked whether he was confident that his brief tenure – of about a year before an election is expected to bring an elected government – would allow him to see any concrete results.
But he considers it his personal mission to at least put the proper infrastructure in place: The formation of a Higher Education Ministry that will be lean and practical.
“There will only be one department in the new ministry, which will be dedicated to promoting higher learning to meet the tough demands of the fast-changing society.”
He was emphatic that the new ministry wouldn’t try to “control” or “regulate” institutes of higher learning. Instead, the new agency, which is being split off from the huge, cumbersome Education Ministry, will assign itself the vital mission of “promoting and facilitating” the major reform for all aspects of the country’s education system.
“Thailand is fast becoming an ageing society. Universities must adapt their activities to suit the new landscape – which includes opening up courses for people in their 60s and 70s who want to pursue new knowledge, skills and experiences,” Udom said.
That won’t be an easy shift – it means fundamental changes in the way university administrators think about their roles. Students must be able to take courses across different faculties, and even universities, to enable them to become versatile in more than one discipline.
“For example,” he explained, “an engineering student at Chula should be able to take a management course at the same time at Thammasat, and vice versa.”
In fact, many new courses incorporating new fields and practical experience will offer certificates for two-year study periods. “Who needs a university degree these days when what matters to an employer is what the applicants can do – and not where they went to school, since school can be online anywhere anytime.”
If the deputy minister manages to squeeze in enough in his very limited timeline, the current MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) being offered separately – and haphazardly – by a few universities will be streamlined into one system so that every Thai has access to lessons given by the country’s best lecturers without even having to apply for a seat at university.
More bad news is on the horizon for the country’s higher-learning institutes. The number of students applying for seats in private universities has dropped 50 per cent in the past few years “and my forecast is the number will drop by another 50 per cent in the next three to five years. State universities aren’t in a much better position either.”
In other words, Thailand’s universities are facing a real crisis – and nothing short of a dramatic, no-nonsense shake-up will ensure their survival. And even if some do manage to make the necessary changes, not all will walk away intact from the unprecedented storm of change.
“Education will not be the same again,” the deputy minister declared. And neither will the way people “get educated” be recognisable in a few years’ time.