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Adapting to the AI Revolution: Universities at the Crossroads

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As Artificial Intelligence reshapes lives, universities face a pivotal question: will they lead the charge into this new era or be left behind? This critical issue was the focus of the eighth edition of the Temasek Foundation – NUS Programme for Leadership in University Management (PLUM), held at the National University of Singapore (NUS). For university leaders across Southeast Asia (SEA), it fosters ties, exchanges knowledge and advances ideas on university governance and management.

Image credits: National University of Singapore

Sixty university leaders from 21 ASEAN universities gathered to discuss AI’s role in teaching and learning, as well as the increasing focus on student well-being and holistic development beyond academia. NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye was optimistic that the programme would catalyse innovative initiatives among ASEAN universities.

Universities cannot afford to fear, ignore, or dismiss technological developments. The future is driven by technology, he said, while also cautioning against the potential misuse of AI and the pressures of work displacement it might bring.

The launch of Generative AI, such as ChatGPT, has revolutionised the education sector. Students use AI to complete assignments, and institutions in China are considering AI models to grade college entrance exams. Businesses are also exploring AI to boost productivity. These changes prompt universities to re-examine their relationship with students.

Contrary to sci-fi scenarios, AI will not lead to a robot apocalypse or instant job loss, but it will impact employment and employability, noted Professor Simon Chesterman, Vice Provost (Educational Innovation) and author of “Artifice: A Novel,” which explores AI’s implications on humanity.

He questioned whether students should be seen as customers or products and whether universities should focus on serving students or the economy. Given that education prepares individuals for employment, institutions need to consider how best to equip students for a rapidly changing world.

There was a consensus that educators must embrace AI and use it effectively. AI can enhance many areas, including administration, research, and teaching. Automating repetitive tasks frees up time for professors to focus on teaching, and AI can process large data sets for research.

However, AI is a double-edged sword and, if used irresponsibly, can cause harm instead of help. The ethical use of AI is crucial, as shown by examples like ChaosGPT, an AI programmed to destroy humanity, and researchers inadvertently including AI-written content in papers.

“AI will enable us to give more personalised feedback to our students, but we should leverage AI to offer better educational products, not offload responsibility onto it,” elaborated Prof. Chesterman.

Prof. Chesterman suggested that AI should be viewed like a calculator: in some circumstances, it cannot be used, while in others, it is essential. This is the approach that should be taken with AI. Rather than banning AI, universities need to educate students on its appropriate use.

“We will do our students a great disservice if we do not equip them with relevant skills for a highly data and technology-driven future,” remarked Prof. Tan.

As educators prepare students for an AI-driven world, they too need to upskill, often learning from their tech-savvy students. Combining the skills of the younger generation with educators’ experiences can foster a dynamic learning environment.

Despite the emphasis on technological advancements, leaders should not neglect the “softer” aspects of university life. Universities should be seen as more than just places where students earn degrees to get jobs. This is where they mature and build skills and character. The discussions at the programme highlighted the urgent need for universities to adapt and evolve in the age of AI, ensuring they remain at the forefront of innovation and education.


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