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Navigating the AI revolution in higher education: a call to action

  • 5 January 2024
  • By Yike Guo
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Professor Yike Guo. Professor Guo spent 34 years at Imperial College London studying AI, data mining, machine learning, and large-scale data management before becoming Provost of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) in 2022.
  • Here, he argues that when it comes to artificial intelligence, UK universities need to pivot from cautious observers to enthusiastic adopters.

Back in 1937 HG Wells, a man who knew a little of the future and the challenges it holds, warned that ‘our universities are not half-way out of the 15th century’ as he berated them for their inability to move with the times. What would he say to them now as artificial intelligence (AI) promises to revolutionise learning in ways even he didn’t foresee?

I’d like to think that one thing he wouldn’t advise was denial. Because the fact is UK universities face a choice: to either embrace AI as an integral component of academic pursuit or to risk obsolescence in a world where digital co-pilots could become as ubiquitous as textbooks.

As a seasoned academic who has witnessed the advance of AI over four decades, I believe that any reluctance to adapt to this digital dawn will only undermine institutions dedicated to intellectual and scientific discovery. AI is not a mere accessory to the academic toolkit; it represents a fundamental transformation of the educational paradigm.

Too much of our current higher education system is still predicated on memorisation, a relic of a pre-digital era. In academia we still place a great deal of emphasis in scholarship on the capacity to recall and recite. This anachronistic measure of intelligence is a disservice to our students and the needs of society.

At HKUST, we’ve integrated AI into our curriculum with our groundbreaking module, AI Literacy and Critical Thinking: Survival Skills for a Changing World. This isn’t simply an elective – it’s a lifeline to relevance in an AI-saturated future. Our students are not just learning about AI; they’re learning to interrogate it, to partner with it, and to elevate their cognitive capabilities through it.

Imagine, if you will, an examination hall not lined with nervous students, scribbling feverishly to regurgitate facts, but a collaborative space where young minds engage in dialogue with their AI counterparts, crafting answers that are as much a product of their critical thinking as they are of the data-driven insights offered by AI.

This is not to dilute the rigours of academia but to enhance them. AI does not grant a licence to intellectual laziness; rather, it challenges our students to refine their judgment, to assess the validity of information, and to express complex ideas with clarity and creativity.

At HKUST, have made this leap not because it is easy, but because it is necessary. The fruits of this transition are evident in the increased engagement, the depth of analysis, and the innovative thinking our students exhibit. UK universities, too, must pivot from cautious observers to active adopters.

The resistance to AI integration in universities often stems from fears about originality, authenticity, and the sanctity of individual thought. But in a world where AI-generated content is becoming indistinguishable from human output, the crux of education should shift to understanding, critiquing, and enhancing these outputs rather than merely competing with them.

Let’s not forget, the roles that AI cannot fulfil – ethical reasoning, emotional intelligence, and the intrinsic values of goodness and compassion that define our humanity. As we venture into this new era, these are the anchors that will maintain our course, ensuring that our graduates are not just proficient in the language of algorithms but are also the moral compasses of a technologically advanced society.

We are on the cusp of a new age where traditional professions are being reshaped by AI, where what was once specialist knowledge is being encoded into software, making some careers redundant. The question then is not whether our students can remember the facts that AI can recall in microseconds; it’s whether they can navigate the complex, multifaceted problems that the AI itself cannot solve.

UK institutions must now step up to the plate. The race isn’t for the preservation of old methodologies but for the pioneering of new ones. The true measure of our success with AI-augmented education will not be the seamless integration of technology alone but our ability to instil in our students the confidence to challenge, the wisdom to discern, and the courage to humanise the digital frontier. It is here, in the confluence of machine precision and human insight, that the future of higher education will be written.

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  1. James Fuller says:

    What an absolutely perfect summary of where we are now. Superb. This is just as true about the school system and perhaps especially so when discussing the 2016 iterations of the GCSE exam.

    “Too much of our current higher education system is still predicated on memorisation, a relic of a pre-digital era. In academia we still place a great deal of emphasis in scholarship on the capacity to recall and recite. This anachronistic measure of intelligence is a disservice to our students and the needs of society.”

  2. Jon Jones says:

    Fantastic….I’m researching potential PhD titles and your article draws attention the area I’m excited about. Using AI tooling, I beleive we need to move to thematic based secondary education somewhat like good primary school education and completly do away with subject based training…I need to look further into your work.



  3. Mihail Mastroyiannis says:

    Excellent article , applies to high schools as well and I like “humanize the digital frontier” with the collaboration with AI

  4. This HEPI blog is a doubly disturbing blog, if I may so and, for me, it falls below HEPI’s normal high standards:
    (1) There is no recognition in it of the very serious concerns that are being expressed in relation to AI and large computer systems in general and to LLM and Chatbot-type engines in particular, and from those concerned with their political, societal and educational implications.

    (2) A university – if it is to warrant the title of university – must have at its centre a spirit of criticality, in which every feature of the world, including universities themselves, is open to critical review. There is no mention of this cardinal condition of being a university.

    Another HEPI blog (received today) acknowledges that ‘we must all hold information with uncertainty’. Exactly. All texts have now to be suspect – a matter hardly ever recognised. (It may herald a break-down of society which depends on trust.)

    And one implication of that observation is that we are entitled to wonder as to the provenance of the HEPI blog in question – how do we know that it itself was not generated by an LLM?
    Ronald Barnett

  5. Perry Share says:

    agreed – a nicely succinct account of the challenge faced by Higher Ed. Congrats to KUST for the introduction of that core module and it will be interesting to follow other programmes and modules are reinvented in the years to come.

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