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Vive la résistance: The persistence of the university education model in a rapidly changing world

What does the future hold for our universities?

Inside the academy, plenty of experts – from Glyn Davis at the University of Melbourne to economist Ken Rogoff of Harvard – are speculating eloquently about imminent threats to the ‘standard model’. Technology, diminished government funding, risks to international enrolments, and employer expectations of new graduates have the potential to turn the sector’s worldview upside down.

And yet whatever change may be “imminent”, it doesn’t appear to have hit the sector in Australia. We still have roughly 40 public universities, all of which conform to the same “metropolitan” or “standard” model described by Davis in his recent book, The Australian Idea of a University. They’re state-owned, self-governing, secular, generalist and focused on professional education – at least for undergraduates, and almost exclusively for commuter students.

According to Davis, our universities are all too similar – a result of the Dawkins reforms of the late 1980s, and this puts them at risk of disruption the same way an endangered population of animals with too little genetic diversity is at risk of extinction. It’s an interesting metaphor and will certainly provoke discussion. Davis’ recommendations focus on policy reforms. If Dawkins was the source of today’s uniformity, then another review that develops a new framework for diversity will deliver the kind of adaptability universities need to thrive in the coming decades.

Rogoff is more direct in his chastisement of the sector, though his perspective is uniquely American – and prejudiced by his rose-tinted Harvard glasses. He believes the time has come to accept that every university doesn’t need to deliver its own version of the same, large enrolment courses, and that we should accept that a top performing academic can be digitised, mooc-ified, and distributed to thousands of universities and millions of students.

Rogoff makes another valuable point regarding a powerful brake on innovation: while no one likes to see their career disrupted, “unlike most factory workers, university faculty members have enormous power over the administration. Any university president that tries to run roughshod over them will usually lose her job long before any faculty member does.”

That’s a point the leadership at University College London is learning, having just been the subject of a ‘no-confidence’ vote by the faculty. The vote was brought on by UCL’s rapid expansion of student numbers, including a planned £483 million new campus on the former Olympic site in East London. According to the report, faculty were expressing “resentment at what they saw as the increasing dominance of financial rather than academic concerns in the college’s operation”.

Fears of over-commercialisation of public universities aren’t limited to the UK. They’re rife in Australia as well, where the sector has aggressively pursued a highly commercial international strategy that has transformed the culture, educational experience, and financial underpinnings of most of our universities. In fact, while Davis cites the 500,000-plus international students now studying in Australia, comprising $28 billion worth of export revenue, as evidence of the sector’s ability to innovate, others see this as a fundamental debasement of the university’s higher, knowledge-seeking purpose.

At the University of Adelaide, Deputy Vice Chancellor Pascale Quester fears that the needs of students are being lost in the excessive commercialisation of Australia’s research-intensive universities. Are we paying enough attention to “quality” in the student experience, Quester asks, and why is it that no universities have decided to specialise in delivering a world-class education to their students; instead remaining wedded to “a single, fundamentally financially unsustainable model.”

While university senates argue over quality and incremental change, Tim Dodd, writing in The Australian, noted that a US company, 2U, that provides universities with services to move their degrees online, has partnered with WeWork, the global co-working space startup, to offer mobile study spaces to students. It’s noteworthy that 2U is eight years old, has some of the most reputable names in higher education among its clients, and has a market capitalisation that, if listed on the ASX, would place it around number 70 – larger than the Bank of Queensland.

The one question no one appears to be asking is the most fundamental of them all: is it reasonable to expect our universities to be able to transform themselves in some ill-defined way?

Universities are legislated to be permanent government institutions, and, on the whole, they have done an exceptional job fulfilling their dual roles as centres of teaching and research. Davis recognises this with his recommendation that a new policy direction, set by academics and seasoned bureaucrats, needs to be developed to provide the framework for change for the sector.

But this sort of change can’t just be legislated into being. It requires a cultural transformation. Davis writes of reimagination that makes the Bradley Review, which led to widening participation and the demand driven system, look downright modest. And while some in the academy are thinking about these challenges, many more are focused on resolving what appear to be endless enterprise bargaining negotiations, or haggling with the Government over budget allocations.

Wednesday’s Universities Australia conference is a wonderful opportunity to gauge the openness of the sector to the kind of existential change these authors are advocating. No doubt there will be discussion of the future of employment, the role of universities in preparing students for the economy of the next decades, and other seismic world shifts. Will the ‘big ideas’ that get bandied about in Canberra make it back to the nation’s campuses, and how will they be received by faculties, senates, and other decision making bodies? And while those ideas are being pondered by our nation’s academics, what other disruptive ideas are brewing in the wider world?


Jack Goodman is the founder and executive chair of Studiosity, an online study support service.

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One comment

  1. “state-owned, self-governing, secular, generalist and focused on professional education – at least for undergraduates, and almost exclusively for commuter students.”

    Well, not exactly. Anyone who has worked for a university will realise how entangled ‘self-government’ is in a quasi-marketised environment in which 75 organisations are knocking on the door to also offer degrees. Generalist degrees have been on the decline for years. Increasingly, universities are shifting to blended and online, and are keenly aware of the competition on offer from global leaders in online education and training.

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