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Partnerships help universities to respond to disruptors in higher education – Prof Hester Klopper
Author: Hester Klopper
Published: 02/05/2023

​​Global shifts in population demographics and accelerated digitalisation are among the key disruptors rapidly changing the higher education landscape. Collaborative partnerships can help universities deal with these and other disruptors in higher education, writes Prof Hester Klopper, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Strategy, Global and Corporate Affairs, in an opinion piece for University World News.

  • Read the article below or click here for the piece as published.

Hester Klopper*

Universities around the world are facing widespread challenges and changes amidst the uncertainty of geopolitical tensions. Global shifts in population demographics and accelerated digitalisation are among the key disruptors rapidly changing the higher education landscape.

Institutions have to find ways to deal with these disruptors in an agile manner to be more accessible and future-forward in a competitive global higher education environment. Those universities that lag in their efforts to do so, run the risk of becoming irrelevant and stagnant.

Changing demographics

The world's population is growing rapidly, but more so in Africa, where halfway through this century, there will be one billion children on the continent. By 2050, two in every five children born globally will be from an African country. Not only is Africa outpacing South America, Europe, and Asia in terms of population growth, but its population is also getting younger. Already, 77% of the population is below the age of 35 and the average age is 19 – and getting younger.

A younger population means more students and by 2050, there will be an additional two billion more university and alternative post-secondary graduates globally. Of the one billion post-secondary graduates expected over the next 30 years, three-quarters will be from Africa and Asia.

With these staggering demographic shifts in our sight, we must find solutions to how our current models of education will deliver access at the scale, quality and speed that is required to meet this burgeoning demand. Students need to acquire new skills for global competencies so that they can become global citizens who can share knowledge, embrace the new world of work, and engage in research for impact that will help improve the lives of their local communities. Increasing our digitalisation efforts would be key in this regard.


It's been three years since the pandemic, which served as the catalyst for greater digitalisation and innovation and prompted universities to consider new and alternative ways of teaching and research.

With ChatGPT and artificial intelligence (AI) becoming increasingly commonplace, we have to consider the advances in digitalisation and technology in education. These innovations need to be embedded into education delivery and learning-teaching processes. We are already seeing virtual and simulated training in adult education and upskilling, as well as in formal education settings. Globally, there is a push to accelerate online programmes and training in digital skills to present these programmes. Online, hybrid and hyflex (each class session and learning activity is offered in-person, synchronously online, and asynchronously online) learning will become more common as institutions expand their global reach.

Although education is still grossly under-digitised, the global spend on educational technology is forecasted to grow from the $152 billion it was in 2018 to $342 billion in 2025.

But we still have a long way to go.

According to the PwC South Africa's Vice-Chancellor (VC) Survey (2022), more than 70% of respondents believe that the higher education sector lags behind corporate when it comes to digital transformation. However, half of the VCs said their budget for innovation is higher than in previous years. This shows that some progress is being made, but more needs to be done to improve digital access.

The report notes that universities have a unique opportunity to create new teaching models in response to changing educational needs. This may also imply new university models.

We are already seeing the proliferation of micro and alternative credentials obtained via online platforms or lifelong education units. There's a growing demand for real-world learning, with ongoing training throughout a career. Work-integrated learning and the ongoing need for upskilling and retraining will shift adult learner profiles.

Collaborative partnerships

To navigate a rapidly evolving landscape, with shifts in population demographics and accelerated digitalisation, universities must look beyond their borders to engage with partners and networks to ensure the greater good for higher education globally. Partnerships are essential to support universities in accelerating their institutional goals and objectives and to drive transformation through technology. In this way, they will be able to adapt and work collectively to meet the changing demands of an expanding pool of students, which will become the future workforce.

It is, therefore, encouraging that in 2021, globally over 340 new university partnerships were established to accelerate online programmes and over 200 new university partnerships were established with bootcamps to offer accelerated digital skills, according to research and analytics platform HolonIQ. Digital innovation has made it easier for universities to share knowledge and encourage cross-border co-creation.

When it comes to transformative partnerships and international network collaborations, Stellenbosch University (SU) is steering the way. Having one of the largest international footprints of South African universities, SU has partnerships with more than 450 institutions in over 70 countries. And it is a member of 36 networks globally, of which 13 are on the African continent and 23 elsewhere in the world. Its students regularly take part in outbound mobility opportunities, and this year SU welcomed a record number of 650 international semester students from around the world. It has also up to date delivered more than 40 joint doctoral degree programmes with international partner universities.

Although SU formalised its internationalisation efforts with the launch of a dedicated office for international relations, known as SU International, 30 years ago, academics have been working across national and continental borders to advance science and encourage new knowledge for many more years. Thanks to these connections, SU is now part of formal international networks such as the Global Alliance of Universities on Climate (GAUC), the Consortium of Universities for Global Health (CUGH), the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA), EUTOPIA, INU, SGROUP, among others.

At this critical time in higher education, the value and importance of these kinds of partnerships to deal with key disruptors cannot be overemphasised. Going forward, universities must use their partnerships to identify and leverage the seismic shifts in higher education so that they can optimise the ways in which students and staff engage more meaningfully globally. At Stellenbosch University we are ready to build and expand our portfolio of comprehensive partnerships with universities and networks from all the regions of the globe, to ensure we are future-ready, and to conduct research with impact in service of society.

*Prof Hester Klopper is Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Strategy, Global and Corporate Affairs at Stellenbosch University​.