The (ir)relevance of universities in the modern knowledge economy: An opportunity for academics to step up by Marius Meyer

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During the last ten years, there have been dramatic changes impacting on higher education institutions. Phenomenal developments in the workplace, especially regarding the growth in the knowledge economy, spearheaded by a digital and social media revolution have created pockets of excellence within organisations, despite significant skills gaps. The power of artificial intelligence, robotics, augmented reality and similar trends in business innovation have made it possible for business leaders to accelerate change and impact driving quicker and better customer service based on real-time customer and market intelligence. In addition, there has been a huge proliferation in the private higher education sector, many of them adopting a stronger client service approach than traditional public universities. Moreover, some of the world’s leading companies have created world-class infrastructures and systems to achieve their business objectives.  For instance, annual ASTD/SABPP State of the South African Learning Industry Report clearly shows that South African learning and development functions exceed several international benchmarks in the areas of training investment, e-learning and talent management.

The speed of change is so rapid that in many study fields knowledge obtained at universities quickly becomes obsolete. The reality is that people can google all information they need, notwithstanding the fact that ten million hits lead to information over-load and a challenge to select the right information you really need.  It is not surprising that many leading companies have created corporate universities to replace traditional universities as the new centres of learning. Universities offering traditional modes and content of learning are simply not able to provide relevant learning for the world of work today. This problem is exacerbated by academics providing lectures on subjects they have never practised. Many academics have not even visited a workplace where “their” (sic) theory is practised, let alone practising it themselves.

The power of the Internet, technology and social media have overnight created communities of practice all over the world, making it possible for people to quickly acquire and build knowledge with the click of a button on a smart phone or device. Already, most knowledge is created outside universities, given the fact that innovations primarily take place inside organisations, and not at institutions of higher learning.  The critical question is: Have universities become irrelevant in the modern knowledge economy?  The challenge is to identify risks and opportunities of ensuring the relevance and survival of universities in society. However, this will require a fundamental change in higher education strategy to reposition universities as centres of excellence and innovation.  Fortunately, some public and private institutions and leading-edge public universities have started to embrace this challenge.

Higher education institutions are challenged to get closer to the world of work, and to build seamless relationships and collaborative models for integrating higher education with the needs of the business world, with a specific focus on addressing the realities of the modern knowledge economy.  Unless universities make radical changes, society will become convinced that academic programmes work to serve only the needs of academics, and therefore signal the demise of higher education institutions.  This article debates the relevance of higher education institutions in the talent-driven knowledge economy, and provides recommendations to prevent them from becoming irrelevant.  The goal is to re-establish the trust society had in universities as generators of knowledge and innovation, and to assist graduates to successfully enter the world of work.



Despite the growth of universities in the previous century, rapid changes in technology and the needs of the workplace in the knowledge economy have led to the demise of the credibility of universities as centres of innovation and excellence.  Although research at Stellenbosch University has indicated that graduate unemployment is low in South Africa, the lack of a linkage between university programmes and market needs is partly blamed for the high unemployment rate in South Africa. Perhaps a more pertinent question is whether graduates are able to apply their knowledge and skills in the workplace, or whether employers have to retrain them to meet their needs.

Universities can’t afford to educate students in isolation any longer.  They have to increase graduate attributes to the level they’re capable of entering and succeeding in the demanding workplace.  How employable are students?  Do students have the right skills, knowledge and understanding and attitudes to ensure their employability?  Universities have the responsibility of preparing students for future employment in a knowledge-driven, technology-intensive business environment. We aim to produce problem-solving, creative and critical thinkers – graduates who are responsible, accountable, relevant and ethical in every community where they operate, even globally.  On the other hand, perhaps universities should also shift their focus on educating graduates for entrepreneurship and not employment per se.

At a workplace level, and attributed to the Skills Development Act and the occupational framework for occupations (OFO) as enshrined in the National HRD Strategy, employers in South Africa are looking towards internal training departments, as well as external training providers offering short- and medium term learning solutions to address immediate skills gaps in the workplace.  It is also debatable whether the OFO is the solution. The speed of change in business is too fast for the OFO.  New and emerging job roles will not be found on the OFO. It is my fear that if new and more innovative thinking cannot be found, we will have to rename the OFO as the “Outdated Framework of Occupations.”  While the OFO does contribute to some current occupations, it is even more scary that many universities are lagging behind the OFO, thus making universities more outdated than the OFO.

Given skills gaps in some fields of learning, coupled with an insufficient supply of graduates exacerbated by the length of traditional university programmes, many employers cannot wait for these students to enter the labour market, especially if they do not necessarily meet the needs of industry.

In many academic fields, the relevance of scientific research can be questioned.  Academics often conduct research in areas they find personally interesting, however, these studies may be irrelevant to the needs of society.  Despite some exceptions, many educational institutions are simply not responding in a proactive and transformative way to providing high-quality, accessible and affordable programmes that contribute to the national challenge decisively.  For instance, how much valuable research do universities deliver? Does it make a difference in society?  Is there an alignment between the economic needs of the country and the provinces and what is offered at universities?

Given the reality that due to political changes and higher education policy amendments over the last two decades or so, universities have been transformed from “intellectual” schools to managerial bureaucracies, innovation and creativity is no longer a key priority for universities.  Ironically, and despite this trend, quality management systems have by and large been ineffective to improve the quality of higher education provision.  Furthermore, academic work overload and administrative duties in particular, coupled with poor remuneration and thus the need of academics to supplement their uncompetitive income with entrepreneurial activities, put undue pressure on academic staff members and thus complicates their retention.

Similarly, universities have not yet been able to leverage the huge benefits and opportunities associated with electronic and social learning, including the use of social media. Engaging with students using modern technology and platforms can play a significant role to ensure that universities regain the relevance in the knowledge society driven largely by the dissemination of information and knowledge by means of technology. In fact, 18 year students can make a huge contribution to academic transformation if they can educate their 50+ year old academics to use social media as part of academic programmes. This will not only improve connectivity and academic customer service, but also contribute to academic relevance in an increasing social world.  If academics are not part of the social world of today, they will become irrelevant.  Fortunately though, some academics have seen the light, and they are now national and international leaders by not only sharing their knowledge with the world both locally and globally, they are also inspiring students, practitioners, the media, and the broader market with their regular inputs and ideas about the matters of the day. This is academic thought leadership in action.   For instance, Pierre de Vos (UCT), Thuli Madonsela (Stellenbosch), Adam Habib (Wits) and Fathima Mahomed (VUT) are examples of academics who have achieved a significant followership on Twitter as a result of their active engagement with the world on this social media platform.

Community engagement is one of higher education’s three core responsibilities, but sadly has been neglected by most universities. The failure of academics to agree on a workable and contextual definition of community engagement is the most notable reason for this situation, Universities at best implement a variety of community engagement projects, but all of them outside any jointly planned systematic or strategic framework.  There is a weak link between the vision and strategic objectives of the institution and community engagement initiatives. The outputs and impact of community engagement is not measured. Therefore, there is a perception that community engagement does not add value to academia.  Higher education institutions should make a contribution to the improvement of society as a whole.

The other major contribution universities can make to society is to address societal problems with their research and teaching. For instance, South Africa is currently facing a crisis in the area of fraud and corruption.  It is a well-known fact that most universities offer the subject of ethics. However, most of these modules are presented from a too theoretical and philosophical approach. Imagine if universities can reverse this approach by approaching their teaching from a practice approach in dealing with all the examples of fraud, corruption, corporate collusion and state capture using case study research and teaching.  Moreover, most of the problems facing South African organisations require a multi-disciplinary approach. Imagine if universities can break down the barriers between academic departments and conduct interdepartmental research in dealing with these problems in a more integrated way. For example, the problem of crime requires multi-disciplinary collaboration using the science and practice of criminology, social work, public administration, sociology, psychology, policing, management, leadership and governance. Also, these academic departments should collaborate actively with government, business and civil society in finding solutions to these problems.

Thus, in the light of the above discussion, it appears as if universities are faced with a number of problems threatening their relevance in the modern knowledge economy:

  • The curricula of universities are not always relevant to the needs of the labour market.
  • Outdated educational and other methodologies are used by many universities.
  • There is insufficient engagement and collaboration between universities and employers.
  • Although the research done at universities may be interesting to scholars, it does not address real workplace needs, and can therefore be seen as irrelevant, and adding no or little value.
  • There is a gap between the quality of graduates entering the labour market, and the needs and expectations of the business community.



To address the widening university-practitioner gap, some key recommendations are posited to reverse the current situation:

  • Higher education should identify all relevant internal and external stakeholders and decide on active and more dynamic mechanisms for stakeholder engagement.
  • Collaborative partnerships between universities and workplaces need to be established in order to foster close working relationships.
  • Given the shortage of resources, and unnecessary duplication of services, public and private universities need to collaborate on key projects and services where possible.
  • The governance structures of universities should include more external stakeholders to ensure that the “voice” of industry is adequately reflected in decision-making mechanisms.
  • Create opportunities for practitioners and academics to work together on workplace problems, and to jointly work on curriculum development and research projects.
  • Academics need to undergo workplace assignments, learnerships or internships in organisations to gain the necessary knowledge of industry needs and expectations.
  • Likewise, academics should be mentored by external mentors to help them in bridging the academic-practitioner gap.
  • Higher education institutions need to implement more rigorous talent management systems to develop and retain academics, and also to market and brand them as thought leaders in society.
  • One-sided performance management systems that only reward academic outputs, should be re-configurated to include involvement in industry projects.
  • More external guest lecturers from the business and professional community should be sourced and used on a regular basis, including practitioners doing sabbaticals at universities.
  • A concerted effort is needed to encourage academics to publish jointly with practitioners.
  • Once more relevant research projects are generated, universities should develop marketing strategies to ensure a wider dissemination of research reports to the practitioner community, as opposed to the current approach to only publish in scientific journals which most practitioners do not read.
  • The conversion of research projects into innovative products and services will reposition universities as centres of excellence and innovation.
  • A more integrated approach to the current fragmented community engagement programmes is required.
  • Focused studies are needed on the employability of students, and alumni groups can be used to provide student and market satisfaction as well employability ratios.
  • Higher education quality management systems should be transformed to focus less on compliance and window-dressing and more on innovation and continuous improvement.
  • Academics should be orientated to use social media platforms to engage on a daily basis with students, practitioners and the broader society.
  • A university ranking system used successfully internationally should be introduced in South Africa to provide society with a benchmark and opportunity to pressurise higher education institutions to improve relevance and quality.




In this article the premise is that universities have fallen behind in terms of showing their relevance in the modern knowledge economy, and they may become irrelevant in the near future if major change and transformation is not achieved. This sad reality has been caused by rapid technological, societal and other changes in the broader environment, and unfortunately universities have not been able to adapt quickly to these changes. Thus, and despite some exceptions in certain dynamic fields of science and practice, such as medicine and technology, universities have lost their status as centres of excellence and innovation in society.  While the business world is currently in the process of embracing the fourth industrial revolution, with some talk of a transition to a fifth industrial revolution, it appears as if most universities are still stuck in the second or third industrial revolution.

Higher education institutions are unlikely to become more relevant to society at large unless academics, universities, practitioners, and professional bodies implement dramatic changes over a short period of time.  Hence, the (ir)relevance of universities in the modern knowledge economy is a serious issue that need to be addressed as a matter of urgency.  Fortunately, though, some academic institutions with clear business models and client engagement and service delivery approaches and processes have made great in-roads into the workplaces where their students will be working.  If universities can manage to improve their quality management systems based on market and social needs, and increase research outputs addressing real market needs, they will fill a critical vacuum in the South African skills development landscape and regain their reputation as centre of innovation and excellence. Thus, the quest for academic relevance presents a significant opportunity for academics to step up in becoming change agents in a world requiring them to add value to students and society.  In essence, the choice is quite simple: relevance or irrelevance.



Marius Meyer is CEO of the SA Board for People Practices (SABPP), the HR professional body responsible for the accreditation of universities.   He has done academic work for 18 universities and is an author of 26 books and more than 400 articles. This article is a follow-up perspective on previous presentations by the author presented at EASA, NADEOSA conferences and articles published by Talent Talks and Damelin.