In Sept 2018, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, had this advice to offer in his address to university students in Singapore:
“…..you have to study very hard, you have to make sure you excel in your studies…..but you must also know that you study not just to become successful professionals or engineers or whatever, you must also aim to serve.….you owe it to the community, it is that conviction that must stay with you….there are values in life beyond just making money, and enjoying yourself; there are so many people who are being deprived, marginalised, oppressed here and elsewhere; your duty as a student is to take this up….”
And he said this about universities:
…..You can be excellent as an institution, but you are soulless.……you actually train people not to think and reflect but to understand, have adequate knowledge to succeed, but they are like a sacred cow – they don’t think beyond their immediate interest, it doesn’t matter whether there is gross injustice or abject poverty in their backyard, it does not concern them…..there is a failure of education!
Most of us accept that the main purpose of an education is to help us attain a better life. This often does mean getting a good job. Employability is a key concept in higher education and it is no secret that as universities, we measure success through the creation of new knowledge as well as the employability of graduates. However, modern society’s institutional approach to education has often been criticised as it is seen to constrain learning to somewhat narrow economic objective. The criticism grows louder each year. Many argue that the role and practice of education in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world should change. It must empower our youth to face the challenges of contemporary life, become the best version of themselves and help make the world a better place.
How should universities react to such criticism? Do we need to reshape our educational approach to stay ahead of the curve? The answer becomes clearer when one tries to understand the expectations of current and even future learners whom universities will educate in the years to come.
Rise of the Purpose-Led Generation
Gen Z – the first generation of true digital natives are, loosely speaking, people born between 1995 and 2010; their ages today range between 13 to 28 years old. A 2018 study by McKinsey revealed four core Gen Z behaviours, all anchored on one element: this generation’s search for real truth. Gen Z’ers value individual expression and avoid labels. They actively mobilise themselves for a variety of causes. Compared to previous generations, they are more interested in human rights, in matters related to race and ethnicity, in social justice and climate change. They believe profoundly in the efficacy of dialogue to solve conflicts and improve the world. The Deloitte Global 2022 Gen Z & Millennial Survey revealed that 76 per cent of Gen Z’ers are advocates for a better world who want to see us “invest in visible, everyday environmental actions where they have an opportunity to be involved”.
The term Gen Alpha describes people who were or will be born between 2010 and 2025. It is likely to become a very large segment of the global population, with estimates that more than 2.8 million members of Gen Alpha are being born each week. By 2025, they are expected to number more than two billion. Gen Alpha will begin to enter universities after the year 2026.
Mark Mccrindle, an Australian social researcher, who coined the term, predicts that this group will become the wealthiest and most technologically savvy generation which will also enjoy a longer life span. They will stay in education longer, start their earning years later and so stay at home with their parents for extended periods. They will typically possess shorter attention spans, expect the gamification of education and have an entrepreneurial zeal. They not only want to learn, but to also apply what they learn in real-life situations outside their institutions. In short, Gen Alpha will increasingly demand to see a high degree of equilibrium between the outside world and how they interact and learn inside of the institution.
Multiple studies by Ernst & Young, Pearson and McKinsey in 2020 and 2021 have confirmed a major shift in learner expectations about university studies. Learners today and in the future are likely to be more socially conscious, want to support a good cause and are more driven to make positive impact to the world. Learners do not just want university credentials, instead they seek out education infused with purpose and meaning that makes positive impact to communities and industry. They seek out learning that is personalised and meaningful, aligned to their individual identity and their own personal purpose or passion.
This generational shift in learner behaviour could not be more fortuitous for universities today, as we are presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape our value proposition to learners. Apart from remaining relevant to learners, this is also an amazing opportunity to not only produce highly employable graduates but a generation of youth who are empowered to make a positive impact to the world. By doing so, we take higher education back to its humanistic roots by broadening its narrower economic objectives and myopic focus on market value with more meaningful development of higher-level human values that acknowledges the human dignity around us. Education will no longer be just about getting good grades and accumulating credentials to ensure high employability but serve to empower our youth to take their productive place as purpose-driven leaders in the global community.
A purpose-driven university is one where education and research are purpose-led and impact-driven and will align the staff and students’ passion, purpose, and profession. By adopting a model similar to ‘Ikigai’ (a Japanese concept meaning “a reason for being”) the aspiration will be for staff and students to live successful and meaningful lives. To do so, students (and staff) will need to do what they love, what the world needs, what they are good at and what they can be paid for.
In a purpose-driven university, students will articulate their purpose through “I WILL” statements which will help guide them to co-curate their study plans with faculty members to focus on societal problems, understand the issues, and craft solutions throughout their learning journey.
Almost all university faculties today are organised by disciplines. Yet, the challenges facing our world are so complex that no single discipline can effectively solve these independently. Hence universities must establish Impact Laboratories (“Impact Labs”), which are solution-focused teams of academics, practitioners, and students with a common purpose and committed to working together to make progress on societal problems, whilst being guided by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. They bring together transdisciplinary expertise from across the university, as well as partners from government, businesses, non-profits, philanthropic practitioners, and beneficiary groups to generate new insights and creative approaches required to solve complex challenges. Staff and students can live their “I WILL” purpose through such Impact Labs.
Impact Labs enable the integration of research, education, and advocacy to deliver practical solutions. They also shape new policies, practices, or products that can contribute to people, the planet, and prosperity. Through Impact Labs, learning and research become more meaningful, as staff and students feel empowered and begin to believe that they can live their purpose and make a positive impact on society. A diagram of the Impact Labs established at Taylor’s University is provided below:
It may be too harsh to label current approaches to educating our youth as a failure. These approaches may have just outlived their original purpose and relevance. We need to have a serious rethink about how we continue educating our youth, in the light of the complex societal problems and shifting learner expectations today.
Imagine the powerful and positive outcomes that can be unleashed when hundreds and thousands of youth, driven by their respective ‘I WILL’ statements undertake university education infused with impact project. We will hopefully start to experience an endless list of exciting contributions to issues of poverty, health, the environment, infrastructure, justice, renewable energy, governance, art, culture and many other areas. I am filled with hope and can’t wait to see how far this approach will take us. Perhaps, universities can then shift from aiming to be the “Best in the World, to becoming universities that are the Best for the World.
Prof Dr Pradeep Nair is Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Chief Academic Officer at Taylor’s University. He is a multi-award winning Professor of Leadership and Innovation in Higher Education.