When historians look back at the latter half of the 1990s, they will conclude we are now living through a pivotal period in our history. New technologies that evolved from the cumulative discoveries of the past half-century have now begun to bring about dramatic changes in our lives. Higher education has not been left out in this venture.
The opening sentence of "A Tale of Two Cities", could well be an apt commentary and source of reflection on the changing role of universities, as it was on the state of affairs in London and Paris in 1775:
'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way' (Dickens, 1859).
It could be an apt commentary on the current social climate in today's universities. We strive to initiate and manage strategic, organizational development in order to become an institution that is fast, flexible and fluid, and thereby capable of coping with the demands of the emerging global higher education economy.
Issues around university autonomy and governance have changed over the years. While it is true that universities have always owed allegiance to someone-the government, churches, individuals, etc., most universities strive for some form of autonomy- the freedom to run its own affairs without direction or influence from any level of government.
Today's governance is a very complex mix of various institutions, at various levels and with many actors involved. The structure of university governance may be visualized in different ways- interactive governance, steering from a distance, co-governance, self-governance, global governance, corporate governance, stakeholder guidance, etc,
As we know, several constituencies and stakeholders seek to influence university rules and policies. These stakeholders include higher education associations, funding organizations, educational ministries, accrediting institutions, students, alumni, faculty leaders and presidents.
The agendas of these constituencies sometimes do conflict. How do you satisfy the interests of all these constituencies. This has led to the emergence of several university governance models- -one that places the attitudes, values, and expectations of internal and external stakeholders at the center. The twenty-first-century university is much more an intellectual space, underpinned by instructional technologies, values, ideas, revenue flows, and sociopolitical legitimacy than a physical space with a specific set of buildings.
The impact of ICT has affected university administration and the way faculty interacts with students and other networks within the university. Today, faculty are substituting physical office hours with virtual office hours. Asynchronous e-mail, combined with synchronous chat, telephone, and video conferencing are taking over such traditional processes and freeing today's faculty from being physically present at the office. Virtual meetings are now organized where faculty can call in, without leaving the comfort of the office. This has led to the following outcomes:
The model allows for virtual access to the best faculty, research and laboratories in the world.
It trains and produces a critical mass of professionals necessary for economic take-off.
It facilitates the creation of virtual institutions and linkages where resources could be shared by people and organization in physically unconnected places.
It allows the introduction of more current programs of studies and curriculum content to adapt to demand and keep up with the latest advances in disciplines of studies.
It instills the principles of lifelong learning and greater social equity as more people would now have access to university education
While the management of institutional change is always challenging, technology-enhanced education is widely regarded by many as a positive, rather than negative change.
First, we should improve access to technology so that every person is within walking distance of voice and data telecommunications services within the next decade.
Second, we must create a Global Knowledge Network so that education, health care, agricultural resources, and public safety resources can be shared worldwide.
Third, we must expand economic opportunity to all communities around the world through information technologies.
The future is also happening faster than any of us can imagine Let us embrace the changing role of universities in the 21st century.
Let us all share the words of the late Sen. J. William Fulbright:
"We must try, through education, to realize something new in the world-- by persuasion rather than by force, cooperatively rather than competitively, not for the purpose of gaining dominance for a nation or an ideology but for the purpose of helping every society develop its own concept of public decency and individual fulfillment."
These transformations are as needed today as when the Senator wrote about them in 1977.
Let the changing role of the university be geared toward addressing the educational needs of the broad mass of people looking for opportunities to further their education. As many have noted, the mark of a noble society is found not in the manner in which it helps the rich, but in how it helps the poor and the vulnerable. Not in its virtues during good times, but in its character during hard times. Not in how it protects the powerful, but how it defends the vulnerable. Let the new universities address the needs of vulnerable people.
Nana Prof. Osei Darkwa, President
African Virtual Campus