Facing the 4th industrial revolution: How can universities adapt to an AI-enabled world?

On the 7th June PwC hosted the Higher Education Policy Institute’s Annual Conference. After we’d heard from the Minister for Universities and gained valuable insight from HEPI’s annual student survey, the afternoon discussion turned to global trends and artificial intelligence

PwC’s analysis of university risk registers shows that the top four concerns for universities are government policy and regulation, student recruitment, reputation and information and cyber security. These are all sensible and reasonable concerns that relate to the day to day management of higher education institutions, but what about those longer term, more profound risks that are reshaping our economy, such as globalisation and demographic change? How does the higher education sector need to change to face a dynamic and rapidly changing world? And how will technology disrupt and change education? The afternoon session of the conference addressed some of these questions.

Will Day, PwC’s Sustainability Adviser kicked off the session with global trend statistics. It estimated that by 2050, the global population will increase by 2.5 billion and that most of these people will live in cities in the developing world that have yet to be built. As an example in the Middle east and North Africa, it is estimated that 100 million young people will hit the job market. So what happens if there aren’t 100 million jobs? And what sort of jobs will they need to be anyway?

Automation and AI will fundamentally reshape the jobs market. The OECD predicts that 14% of jobs are automatable and a further 32% will change fundamentally. Our own PwC research suggests that by 2030, 30% could be at risk. But we also predict a potential boost to global GDP of $15 trillion from AI and this extra wealth could lead to job creation.

So what skills will we need to meet these challenges? And what can the HE sector do to prepare?  Rob McCargow, PwC’ Director of AI joined a panel in the final session of the conference to discuss his views on this.

According to Rob, in the short term, the largest impacts could be on sectors like financial services where algorithms can lead to faster and more efficient analysis and assessments. And while no sector will be unaffected by these technologies, areas like health and education may be relatively less affected due to a greater reliance on social skills and the human touch.

It struck me that by focusing on these soft skills, universities will be able to help spread the benefits of AI and robotics widely through society.  Improved STEM skills will be important in allowing people to take the highly paid technology jobs that will arise out of AI and robotics, but soft skills will make people adaptable and employable throughout their working lives. As we move towards a tech-enabled and AI focused future, we need to ask ourselves what automation won’t be able to do and focus on building a society rich in these skills.

As Rob pointed out, there are some areas where humans will no longer be able to compete with machines - that can collate, manage and decipher huge volumes of data in seconds. But the flip side is that there are also areas where robots cannot compete with people. And as AI becomes increasingly important in how our society functions so too does the role of the human in the virtual world.

In the past 12 months, we’ve seen AI start to infiltrate hugely significant parts of our lives like democracy and government and as this continues to happen issues such as ethics and trust become more and more relevant. To deal with this we need a society that is strong in humanities and arts education.

The key to properly preparing for these massive changes is collaboration. Governments and business need to work together with educators to help people adjust to these new technologies. Universities have been centres of learning and knowledge since the medieval times and they have adapted to face the changes and challenges of a structured society. As we approach the fourth industrial revolution they will again need to change and adapt.


Ian Looker | Education Leader
Email | +44 (0)113 288 2019


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