The University of Newcastle, Australia

OPINION: Universities past and future?

Monday, 19 February 2018

Over the past few years universities have been tackling the concept of ‘universities of the future’, a conversation driven by the digital and online learning context, the spectre of non-university higher education providers (NUHEPs) offering degrees, combined with changing public expectations of education.  The latest challenge provoking us all to reflect on the role of the university is the so-called ‘end of the demand-driven system’ in Australia in the wake of the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) announcement by the current Federal government in December.

On holiday before Christmas when it hit, I read all the papers, the special edition of Campus Morning Mail, followed some threads on Twitter, and started to think about how the MYEFO context might shape our ideas and plans for future degrees and student outcomes. It wasn’t a surprise to me: our Faculty had considered the prospect only a week or so in our executive review meeting before the news was out. I’d also been watching the politicking around the Higher Education Reform Bill, which constantly missed its Senate date for months, and was then shelved.

The shorthand of MYEFO is that undergraduate Commonwealth Supported Places (CSPs) are capped at 2017 levels, making it difficult for universities to continue on growth trajectories, and signaling a loss of access to higher education for students from low SES backgrounds or other equity groups. Whether or not these changes affect all universities in the same way remains to be seen.

In other ‘capped’ systems in my own experience, participation in higher education is far lower than in Australia over recent decades. In New Zealand, the rate of tertiary education participation (including sub-degrees) for those aged 16-64 decreased from 2006 to 2016, with lower rates for Maori and Pasifika students. For bachelor degrees, the rate of participation in NZ is just under 6 percent, while in Australia, ABS data shows that roughly a third of the population aged 20-64 has a bachelor degree qualification.

The MYEFO changes should, then, make us concerned not for ourselves, but for the nation and its future, because these changes signal a shift in thinking about access to higher education. The surrounding context in Australia is a growing discourse of critique levelled at universities about their outcomes in relation to employers, despite the robust evidence provided by our peak body, Universities Australia, of both student outcomes, and the contribution of the higher education sector to the national economy.

We should respond and react as public intellectuals when the conservative media manufacture consent to ‘bash’ universities for their perceived failures, generating a mistrust of our work. For example, the newspaper headline that employers are wildly dissatisfied with universities, apparently evidenced by the 2017 Employer Satisfaction Survey (ESS) published by QILT, can easily be refuted by drawing on the positive data in the report itself, which shows that employer satisfaction continues in broad terms based on specific graduate attributes. Realistically, there is also some work to do with regard to degree relevance: work that we have already started at UON. Our new BA degree is one example of this.

University leaders currently have an opportunity in their roles to talk to postgraduate students and academic staff about this context of higher education in positive and productive ways by debating the issues. It’s easy to pitch a new message that moves us away from a position of feeling powerless in relation to external changes, government funding shifts, and a perception of turmoil, and instead look at the bigger picture and landscape. Many national reports exist, all containing useful data to help situate our discussions.

Other global trends are emerging: new regulatory frameworks, already operating in the UK and NZ, will push us to better prepare students to succeed, work that we are doing across UON with student retention projects. In the UK, the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is creating new league tables, again forcing institutions to adapt and change tactics. In NZ, poor course and program completion rates can cost institutions funding, money which has to be returned to the government. In the US, the mass education of students across more than 5000 institutions of various kinds including state universities has led to significant pressures on what they term remediation, or enabling education, again a situation known to us in our present system.

Perhaps being a historian is helpful here. The universities I attended and worked at after growing up in regional Victoria were also products of a postwar generation of academia, and were later part of a major overhaul in the mid-1980s under a Labor government. The Dawkins years, as they were known, ushered in the need for more and more students to ensure university targets, a rationalisation of different institutions including mergers between universities and what were then technical colleges, and an emphasis on commercialisation, research funding and the need to raise quality and increase the number of research outputs.

Research funding is itself another vital topic: we should continue the conversation about how to maintain our research identity, and the possibility of pushing our research strengths to capture new interest in both postgraduate course work degrees and higher degree combined with industry partners in the global market.

Universities of the past, then, were already facing challenges of pedagogy, government funding, class sizes, research tools, and library spaces. For those of us trained from the mid-1980s, our own times in the present are an echo of what we went through as students. How we teach our students, prepare them for the universities and employers of the future, draws on this experience of change, the only constant thing we know.

Professor Catharine ColeborneProfessor Catharine Coleborne is Head of School of Humanities and Social Science. She has recently been co-opted and elected as Secretary of the Board of the Australasian Council of the Deans of Arts and Social Sciences and Humanities (DASSH) network for the current term of office.

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