Home | Opinion | A fundamental shift: New Torrens VC on his vision for the institution and the changing role of higher education

A fundamental shift: New Torrens VC on his vision for the institution and the changing role of higher education

In May, Campus Review spoke with Alwyn Louw as he commenced his new role as vice-chancellor of Torrens University.

Starting any new job can be challenging at the best of times, but thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, new Torrens University vice-chancellor Professor Alwyn Louw has taken over the reins at a particularly interesting juncture for the education sector. However, it’s plain to see Torrens is in very safe hands. Louw brings with him decades of experience in higher education management in his native Africa, including terms as president of the university and academic president at Monash South Africa, deputy vice-chancellor (academic and research) at Vaal University of Technology (South Africa), and vice-principal at the University of South Africa (Unisa).

In addition to the challenges posed by COVID-19, Louw speaks passionately during our conversation about the fact that we are at an education “crossroads”, with changes in the world of work and training meaning higher education must be “very careful in defining and redefining itself” in our post‑industrial age.

For him, the recent upsurge in online learning has simply brought forward a trend that has been taking place for some time, one that will see a fundamental change in the way people engage with higher education.

“I do believe that students in future will not go to campuses to collect information anymore. They will go for a special experience,” he says.

Campus Review spoke with Louw to find out more about his plans for Torrens and his ideas on the future of higher education.

CR: Can you take us through your higher ed background in South Africa, and how you came to be VC at Torrens?

AL: I was born in Namibia and then went for higher education to South Africa. I combined quite a number of years in studying, working, and then ultimately after I’d been in the business world, I moved back into higher education.

I’ve been in higher education now for about 36 years: about 17 years in executive education, between 10 and 15 years in executive management, and between 10 and 15 years in senior management.

So I’ve come a long way. In South Africa, I was involved in business education. I was also a vice-principal of the University of South Africa (Unisa), which is one of the mega universities in the world, and then progressively moved into private higher education for between five and six years in South Africa.

Then the opportunity became available at Torrens, because I was part of the Laureate network in South Africa. Plus I’d been working with Monash University, which was one of the owners of Monash South Africa, for more than five years.

The opportunity arose in Australia, and when it was offered, I considered it an interesting opportunity to get involved in this part of the world.

You’ve recently hit 90 days in your role at Torrens. Can you give us a quick overview of your impression of the university, and where it sits in the sector, both locally and internationally?

My immediate impression of Torrens is that it’s an institution that in a short period of time has succeeded in establishing itself very effectively, in the sense that in five years it has positioned itself as a credible institution and has positioned itself on the level of market recognition, which is absolutely unique, both for domestic and international students.

I think the spectrum of qualifications being offered is an indication of the innovative spirit and the innovative orientation of the institution.

I find the institution entrepreneurial. I find it visionary and ready to move and continuously understand what is happening out in society, what is happening in the market, and to make sure that it remains relevant.

What are your primary goals for Torrens, both short and long term?

I think the first thing we must understand is that higher education internationally is at a crossroads. The post-industrial revolution, and what is basically happening across the world, is definitely creating a totally different environment in the world of work. It’s a different environment in terms of the role that industry is playing in determining the competencies for the future, and it’s also impacting the type of training that is required to address these competency needs.

And for that reason, higher education must be very careful in defining and redefining itself in this context. Personally, I think that higher education will need to grow into a much more open systems approach, a much stronger relationship with industry and with society at large, to accept its core responsibility for the future development of societies.

For that reason, my purpose is, in the first instance, absolute contextualisation – understanding the context. Secondly, understanding the target population – Where do we really want to make a contribution? – and link to that a quality curriculum with a quality learning environment and learning experience.

Inevitably, with that goes strong research, because the quality of your research also impacts the quality of our curriculum, teaching and learning directly. And then, the third mandate of higher education: to make a direct contribution to society.

Given the rapid uptake of online learning due to COVID-19, where do you see the future for online course delivery and learning in general? Do you think a permanent shift has taken place?

I think what happened here was that the COVID-19 experience triggered the online delivery over a much broader spectrum internationally. All of a sudden, higher education institutions that were still planning to do this maybe in the near future, or were hesitant to move into that space, almost had no choice.

Higher education institutions had to take a bold step and say, listen, we need to re-focus our resources, we need to refocus our approach and move back.

As soon as we’re back to the ‘old normal’ – and the old normal will never be the old normal in full – I think there will be a new relationship between contact and distance education. The almost artificial distinction will disappear to a large extent, and we will have much more flexibility.

So, online is here to stay. Face-to-face will stay in a specific format, but I do believe that students in future will not go to campuses to collect information anymore. They will go for a special experience. Higher education institutions will have to plan very specifically for how they are going to conduct any face-to-face contact to make it worth their while, because the online world will become more and more prominent in the delivery process.

Do you envisage a time in the near future where there won’t be any lectures or seminars, or only on special occasions?

I think the nature will change in total: it will be a flipped classroom environment. The old testing paradigm will totally disappear.

Secondly, I think students will come for a specific purpose: to use a laboratory, or to engage in a specific group discussion that they can do better face-to-face than online, or specifically for just reflection opportunities in terms of deeper learning, where that may be conducive. So, will that approach ever totally disappear? No, I don’t think so.

Support for students in an online environment is absolutely imperative, but the way in which we provide the support is the greater bit we have to deal with.

COVID-19 has brought a lot of attention to the sector’s reliance on the revenue from full-fee-paying overseas students. How is Torrens placed in this regard, and do you see this reliance on overseas student revenue as a significant issue moving on from the COVID-19 pandemic?

In our organisation at the moment, we’re definitely in a very good position, and we’re thankful for that. So we are not really influenced at this stage. What is important to understand is that, if the borders remain closed into next year, it will have a more radical effect across the sector, not only for specific institutions.

It’s difficult to predict what will happen. Will we find a vaccine in time? If the borders are opened, will they be opened on a qualitative basis, or on a qualified basis as we move on?

At the moment, we’re fortunate, but it’s very difficult to plan for next year. And for that reason we need to be sensitive to the possible scenarios that can play out. Personally, my sense remains that as soon as the vaccine is on the horizon, and things start to stabilise, the global economy cannot remain closed for that long. It’s just not affordable. We will start to see that people will move again.

You’re an advocate for opening up opportunities to allow higher education for all, and focusing on the positive impact that education has on society. What are some of the practical ways this can be achieved by institutions like yours in the short term?

I have a simple perspective on this. The whole idea of openness and accessibility is the new ideology of higher education. In other words, we need to make sure we create a system that is open enough for as many people as possible to participate. That means, firstly, that our online capacity, our ability to service people in different ways, must be user friendly, but it must still be quality.

Secondly, we must be able to manage diversity. As students are coming from across the world, we must have a system that assists, inducts and orientates those students into our system with a necessary support environment that can help them to adapt and to slot in.

The next thing is that in the learning process, we must be more flexible, in the sense that we must accommodate the specific learning needs of students, and we must also accommodate the different paces at which students perform and in which they progress. In other words, there are certain students that have a slower pace, and others a faster pace.

Now, the flexibility in terms of delivery, in terms of facilitation of specific processes, and the accessibility of those services, is fundamentally important and goes hand in hand with a quality support structure.

I firmly believe that curriculum research priorities must be contracted, and it must be reflected on, with all the role-players involved to a larger extent. Not that we want to make education a commodity – that is never the argument – but the relevance of education and our engagement in community, based on the relevance of our research, is of the utmost importance. And that must be almost a new social contract that we must develop.

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