Generative AI could be 'last straw' facing varsities as we know them

Generative AI represents a fundamental shift in how knowledge is created, disseminated and consumed. [iStockphoto]

The transformative power of generative Artificial Intelligence (AI) is profound with potential implications across sectors.

Today, I will shine the spotlight on how this technology will impact higher education in Kenya. If our universities don’t get their ducks in a row, generative AI could just be the last straw that breaks the camel’s back in their current existential crisis.

Generative AI is not simply another technological innovation; it represents a fundamental shift in how knowledge is created, disseminated and consumed. Technology often reminds me of Heraclitus, a philosopher, who famously stated, “You cannot step into the same river twice,” in his belief that reality and knowledge were always in a constant state of flux and change.

This idea resonates with the dynamic and ever-evolving nature of generative AI models which adapt, learn, and produce unique outputs with each iteration. While technology offers exciting possibilities for enhancing education and research, it also poses a significant existential threat to traditional universities.

If universities fail to adapt to this new landscape, as many are failing to do, by redefining their value proposition, generative AI could indeed be the ‘last straw’ following a concerning convergence of trends including declining enrolments, rising costs, and public funding reductions.

Let’s take the notion of value proposition; universities have traditionally prided themselves on being bastions of knowledge creation and dissemination, gateways to prestigious careers, and places for critical thinking and intellectual development.

This value proposition has steadily eroded over the years with generative AI now posing a direct challenge.

In addition, more jobs that traditionally required university degrees are being replaced by AI and automation. For example, in financial services, roles in banking, insurance, and investment have been impacted by the tools’ capabilities in trading and financial risk analysis.

In the creative industry, applications like OpenAI’s Sora or others such as Synthesia or Desk AI are set to make many roles redundant. Indeed, renowned filmmaker Tyler Perry has indefinitely postponed his over Sh104 billion studio project, specifically citing the negative future impact of OpenAI’s Sora on the sector’s jobs. Universities have also traditionally sought uniqueness and competitive advantages by attracting and retaining leading experts, who in turn produce high-quality research output for prestigious journals to bolster their brand reputations. This is then turned into income from funding and student enrolments.

The challenge presented by generative AI is the technology is also steadily eroding this uniqueness and potential advantages like the Ewaso Ng’iro river chipping away slowly through rocky terrain. That’s because of their ability to produce output that rivals or even surpasses human experts diminishing the unique value proposition of university professors and human researchers.

And finally, there is the financial precipice on which many universities are balancing. Kenya’s public universities are facing a precarious financial situation with total debts of around Sh75 billion. They are not alone in being in debt.

Over the last few months, a growing number of institutions in the UK have consequently drastically reduced staff: One in three UK universities having done this so far. For universities already facing financial pressures due to funding cuts and falling enrolment, generative AI exacerbates these challenges.

In fact, the emergence of platforms such as Khanmigo AI and Jagoda AI, which offer cheaper and more accessible alternatives to traditional university education, will lead to further declines in student numbers and tuition revenue, worsening the university’s balance sheets.

To survive, universities must innovate and sharply focus energies on meaningful long-term strategic planning. One sensible strategy would be to embrace generative AI - integrating it into curricula not just as a study tool but as a co-educator enhancing learning experiences and amplifying research capacity.

Universities could also develop novel interdisciplinary courses synergising AI capabilities with traditional fields, thus creating new AI-automation-proof career paths. Universities that do this will transform these challenges into opportunities, thereby ensuring long-term survival through the crisis.