Higher education faces the prospect of dramatic change in the next few years, writes Stephen Parker. What might a university of the future look like? The future of higher education globally is bright, but the current conception of a university More…
Outstanding! Great to see university leaders increasingly facing the future head on. Let’s get on with it.
This analysis is OK as far as it goes, but I think it overlooks some continuing key questions.
I agree that the current focus on “research” and the down-playing of teaching is probably unsustainable, particularly as “research” is taken to mean a bureaucratic counting of journal papers rather than genuinely new developments – research metrics rather than research. Activities such as the ERA are likely to become a thing of the past.
However, the focus on students as individualistic consumers, energized purely by a profit motive, is probably simplistic. In particular, it leaves no room for the nation to address what is genuinely in the national interest; if a topic becomes unfashionable for a year or two, all classes are closed and the academics in the subject are sacked, how does the country respond to a sudden need for expertise in that area, as circumstances change? And how does the nation maintain an existing pool of expertise in key disciplines; or is the intention simply to buy in expertise from overseas if and when required?
Secondly, this analysis does not really address the problem of bureaucratic creep; instead, it appears to focus its attention purely on the role of academics, as if they were the chief sources of cost in a university. They generally are not. Instead, and partly in response to increasing government surveillance and compliance protocols, universities are spending an increasing proportion of their income on bureaucracy and compliance software. No organization can function efficiently if it carries an excessive management burden, and this has to be addressed boldly.
Whilst not disagreeing with the sentiments and points of view, I don’t entirely agree its a complete picture or assessment. The focus on cost simply ignores the fact that investment in education has always been high and will continue to be so – managing this has nothing to do with cutting core tenets; yet it is these core tenets that are most under threat by administrative and budgetary led cuts and changes. Further, the world is clearly not uniform, with expenditure and investment increasing tremendously in the new growth areas of Asia whereas in the West, including Australia, it is relatively stagnant and arguably declining significantly in terms of value – consistent with a real decline in the west it might seem. But just because nations may be becoming poorer is no excuse to make our institutions poorer given education is vital to fight back from poverty in the longer term. Of course, the internet and various technologies will shape the administrative and subject side of much, including online universities when subjects are soft or software based – no one disputes this – but this is not a core leadership issue nor does it mean real research at the hardware level can be diminished. Manufacturing still creates ten times as many jobs than any service sector and looks set to continue given new hardware developing worldwide changing software and other demands. In the midst of all this will still be old fashioned values of scholarship, capability and integrity and duty to the public.
The dominance of technology in our modern culture means there has to be increased funding in research related to it, including understanding social impact. Given the cost continues to be, if not more so, largely hardware driven, much of Australia’s institution’s policy over recent decades in closing down significant workshops and fundamental facilities (and shifting many costs to research grants significantly devaluing the outcomes) that can make new things, rather than grow them and adapt them to new technologies, was clearly a mistake. Increasingly science, and those dependent upon it, is gearing towards two types of research: (1) The one that feeds off an internal capability of building next generation tools and equipment, which then drives research everywhere else before anyone else, and (2), the one that feeds off using commercial equipment, either within the institution or elsewhere which at best can only allow us to participate at the cutting edge. Many of Australia’s institutions have gone the way of the latter so expecting a future where major, pioneering technological innovations are led by Australian inventions has been diminished substantially. Instead, our international collaborations have increased in order to offset some of the impact but clearly over the long term these remain viable so long as there is something to continue to offer. Pretty pictures of molecules using a commercial instrument that make the front page of Nature is no substitute for fantastic but fuzzy pictures of neutrons using the next generation of technology prototype developed in an Australian laboratory, for example.
A capability in these areas is by its very nature expensive, and ongoingly expensive, if it is to be competitive and ensure critical success – as abhorrent as it may be to many, it must be national investment across all institutions and yet it must be comprehensive being accessible to many disciplines at its core, not only niche, tiny areas (especially those based on superficially intelligent topics driven by the media). Else we restrict the odds for Australia’s future against the fact that elsewhere such capabilities are growing, not decreasing.
To create unprecedented job uncertainty and overwhelmingly administrative accountability has perhaps been the second great evil to damage Australia’s institutions future as costs are simply extracted not from where the politicians though they might be but directly from the heart of Australia’s comprehensive capability to undertake research at the cutting edge ahead of other nations. It is well known a transitory population of unhappy employees is both more expensive for an institution, since on average an employee costs 1.5 times more to sack than it does to have them remain, and degrades scholarship because they need to focus on their income. The full consequences of continuing budget cuts over decades have never been fully investigated or audited and this is one of the reasons why we are struggling today. And this is in a nation whose education sector seems unable to benefit in any substantive way from it’s natural resources nor its industry – I would be looking at refocusing the debate on how Universities are funded, meeting the expectations the public has from industry, and how we rebuild core capabilities including next generation workshops that can once again make prototypes without charging highly constrained research grants. Having such capabilities might actually attract much more industry engagement and as well teach hands-on skills, something that is increasingly undervalued and lost from our current graduates.
… the private models you mention are no longer Universities, by clinging to this ‘brand’, Capital attempts to acquire intellectual credibility it has no right to claim: where is the peer review, the critical, the public, in the de-centred, consumer focussed models described here? These ‘things’ are not Universities. Referencing the notion of the University as an ‘elite’ institution, rather than an essential component of public democracy, is a revision of history. The only thing worthy of the name is an institution which is able to critique the very structures which the ‘new’ ‘university’ is in hock to (and I would not deny it could exist online – viz. the Open University, which pioneered distance learning, but retained a public ethos)
This is clearly a V-C’s fantasy; saturday night on the terrace, nice bottle of red. Wouldn’t it be nice to be a real corporate CEO, wheeling and dealing, merging this, taking over that institution, breakfasting with the boys from the equity fund. Get some real professionals in to devise some on-line teaching which can be rolled out across our franchised teaching unit by sessionals, no, let’s call them parademics. And that campus full of full-timers wasting all that real estate with their offices; let’s rent them out to corporate users, a few of those private research outfits and some of our own research work that brings in the money. The posh buildings can be used for graduation and the occasional fee-paying summer school and, well, my suite of offices. Let’s call all that, ‘community use’. And why should Tafe’s get all that industry training money – let’s take over the Tafe and enter that market too. Let’s call that, ‘learning by doing’.
Is it the ‘centuries old’ model that is worn out – that of the Athenian academica, or the Renaiissance university, or the great 19th century re-inventions, or the glass and concrete institutions for the technologically optimistic 1960s? No, what is at stake here is clearly not the future of education but the business model used to re-launch it as a mass education project in the 1990s. Universities would be free to compete for students in a ‘market’, V-Cs would be reconfigured as CEOs, academics would be relegated to employee delivering to goals set by management, quality would be ensured centrally by government – all of which would lead to efficient universities thriving and those that didn;t would go to the wall.
The introduction of quasi-markets – because everybody knows this is not a real market and students are only by a huge distortion of reality ‘customers’ – involved massive amount of bureaucratic coercion. Teaching and learning, research outputs, and huge outpouring of assessment and measurement all with major implications not just for academic workloads which were swamped by these demands. As everybody also knows these quality assessments measurements did not measure outputs they were the outputs – the currency in which universities began to compete and view themselves.
All this led to a shift in power between management and academics; the latter’s monopoly of the pastoral-academic achievements of students was dissolved as management and student-as-customer became the stick and the stick by which academics were now brought into line.
Stephen Parker puts academic complaints that they are ‘worn out by it’ as the bottom of his list of what is wrong with the model. They are in fact worn out by these reforms, as all the research tells. They and their self-indulgent concerns are deemed to be elitist and old-fashioned whilst real ‘professional academics’ and ‘career academics’ will be the new breed to take over. Which of course begs the question, two decades after Dawrkins, who exactly are the academics who have been teaching for the last 20 years – gentlemen scholars, amateur dilettantes, people looking for pin money? What exactly do V-Cs mean when they say they are looking for professionals? They mean academics who don;t talk back, who buckle down to delivering the corporate goals.
So though real career professionals will now devise and produce on-line courses, they will be delivered by parademics (who wants a boring – and expensive – lecture?) to small groups of students (nice touch that, with class sizes at record levels). They can;t actually be left to set their own standards or report accurately on their achievements. Unlike the Finish school system where they “trust the numbers that [the teachers] show are real” (Pasi Sahlberg) here that would be like putting the cats in charge of regulating the cream. So large, expensive government institutions (staffed by ‘career academics no doubt) are set up to regulate the whole quasi-market.
One thing is clear; the future of higher education is not safe in the hands of vastly over-paid V-Cs with a self-interest in turning universities into a version of those privatised public entities which pay executives above market rates but which rely entirely on government regulation and monopolies. When this business model which was never going to work starts not to work they blame the university system per se and begin to undo centuries of work. Not with a view to the educational requirements of society but how it can be paid for within the funding model which made it fail.
All the talk about student centred learning (when was it not, what does that really mean?) hides the fact that what was free to previous generations is now not free. This is due to a series of political decisions about why students should pay and not the taxpayer (i.e previous beneficiaries) which have never been fully debated. Certainly not with the students who always demonstrate against but who, in this case, are not ‘centred’ in the debate.
The Dawkins reforms lumped many different institutions together, despite complaints at the time, and told them to get on an deliver higher education to the masses. Finding out that this massified, agglomerated system does not work simply results in the call for the abolition of the university model in toto.
I would suggest that those academics – and they are many – who have looked on in silence as the university system was systematically dismantled from the top start to do something. There are huge challenges facing universities and these are not to be reduced to the ‘disruptive innovation’ of the internet. They are not to be faced by more managerialism, more sub-contracting, more insecurity, more government bureaucracy, more sessionals, more quasi-markets. They are to be faced by having a debate in which the educational requirements of society as a whole, not just ‘industry’, are addressed.
Academics need to take a lead in this if their younger colleagues are to be anything other than sessionals, teaching and learning ‘experts’, administrators of Blackboard content, research leaders who don;t do research, or ‘career professionals’ in management and administration. The relinquishing of research to the private sector – which of course will not have any of the bureaucratic output mechanisms foisted on public universities – and the axing of courses that do not pay their way undermines a key purpose of universities. That is the possibility of a public, independent source of knowledge and critical examination of that knowledge not beholden to governments and corporate interest. This possibility – and it is always a possibility – is neither required not particularly welcomed in the corporate business model-that-is-not-working.
But if academics, increasingly demoralised, cannot fight their own corner as their status and aspirations are marginalised, then perhaps the university model has come to and end. Destroyed from the top and allowed to be so destroyed by academics unable to mobilise in its defense.
Well said Justin. I couldn’t agree me.
While I applaud the good professor for speculating about the future, what scared me was the total absence of a statement about what a university SHOULD be doing in a democratic, tolerant, and progressive society decicated to the sustainability and dignity of human life.
Parker’s response is the consumate technocratic response that fails to critique the discourses and their underlying epistemes that have framed the “idea of a university” since Dawkins began the process of technocratisation and the so-called professionalistion of particular areas of work (eg, nursing, teaching, journalism, PR). He thinks only within the framework of the dominant discourses.
There is no critique of the student-based model that essentially reduces education (or non-education and mis-education in Dewey’s terms) to an instrumentalist, uncritical product bought in a market according to lifestyle interests.
No wonder our universities continue to be stripped of money and social status (in the sense of serving a worthwhile social purpose) when our VCs can’t mount a case for universities to be any more than training factories with no social role to speculate, to record, to interpret, to analyse, to theorise, to innovate, or to challenge.
Bernard McKenna UQ
(these are personal comments and may not reflect the views of my university)
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