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    Liberal arts still vital amid tilt towards tech

    The rapid rise of new technologies, most notably AI and ChatGPT, has many implications for the world of higher education. Universities now face fundamental decisions about use of these tools for teaching, research and coursework assignments and how to impose effective rules and guidelines.

    But they must also engage in the wider debate. That concerns the future need for certain disciplines and, more specifically, the place of traditional courses in arts, humanities and social sciences in a world ever more entranced by technology.

    To understand the issues, the organisers of THE Digital Universities Asia 2023, held in Kuala Lumpur from May 8-10, invited leading figures from business and academia to discuss their views, hopes and vision.

    In a keynote talk, Leonard K Cheng, President of Lingnan University in Hong Kong, acknowledged that employers are increasingly STEM-focused when hiring. Therefore, it was vital to act, adapting liberal arts education to give students additional skills and essential tech-related know-how.

    “Success with technology-driven innovations will be crucial to the prosperity, performance, and even the survival of many firms,” Cheng said. “They need staff who can turn breakthroughs and improvements into products and services.”

    He noted that the emerging era, known as Industry 5.0, will see the world entering a new phase of economic development. Business leaders and policy advocates say it will bring a bonanza in fields like robotics, automation, AI, smart machines, big data, and the internet of things (IoT).

    For critics, that vision appears ominous. They see it as continuing surrender to “the rule of robots” and the boundary-less work practices of today’s digital age. They question the single-minded focus on productivity and profit. Instead, they want to see industry and society giving more attention to other essential aspects of human existence. These include personal health and welfare, the chance to pursue diverse social, cultural and intellectual interests, and due care for the environment.

    Rather than “automation with a soul”, the emphasis should be on human-centricity, resilience and sustainability. That can be achieved by studying arts, humanities and social sciences – alongside tech disciplines – to gain the necessary balance and insights.

    “In higher education, we should welcome Industry 5.0,” Cheng said. “We need to learn what ChatGPT and AI can do and what the limitations are. These tools will be used in the workplace, so our students must be trained to use them. But, to build resilience, they must also understand the nature of disruption and uncertainty. They can then help to improve macro and micro policies, creativity, planned design; production processing, rearrangement and so on. For that, liberal arts subjects are indispensable.”

    Cheng said universities must also keep advancing sustainability. That is the third pillar of the future economy, doing well beyond issues of industrial automation and manufacturing to the very foundation of the economic system.    

    “Graduates must be informed citizens who can collectively promote social good,” he said. “That’s why university education needs to include key elements of the humanities and social sciences.”