I might be speaking for others here but I think most students having recently completed a tertiary course in one of the 39 Australian universities will agree with the findings of the recent Earnst and Young report “University of the future”:
- Universities are too inefficient,
- They do not collaborate sufficiently with industries,
- Curricula are stagnant and not refreshed adequately to keep up with technological changes,
- They have more support staff than academic staff,
- They’ve become economic not social tools.
The Australian University I attended for four years in the nineties offered what seemed to be a valuable, affordable education. To be honest, I don’t think we knew any better. We still relied on archives for our research and had no other option than to run to the campus library endless times to fetch the one book that a lot of us students in the same course shared. No Internet, no technology.
But the Australian University I attended three years ago to complete a Masters degree in Translating and Interpreting was an outdated, uninspiring institution completely out of touch with current trends and technologies. I can fairly say that it was a complete waste of time and money and a great source of disappointment and frustration. And I can fairly say that the course was only geared towards collecting the astronomic fees charged to overseas students.
What are the challenges?
Having said that, I think it’s time to learn from past mistakes and get a clear understanding of their role in the twenty first century and allow tertiary institutions to evolve in order to overcome the challenges faced today, namely:
1. Democratisation and access of knowledge online – universities are no longer the originators and keepers of knowledge. The rise of Open Content initiatives and “open repositories” provides fresh opportunities to create new value from a fast-growing mass of available educational content. Take for example:
- Khan Academy
- Open Courses everywhere
- Open Content
- Directory of of Tools for Storing Open Educational Resources
2. Increased global mobility for students, academics and university brands – as a result, competition has now become vastly intensified and so are the opportunities for global partnerships. Universities (in Australia and all other traditional tertiary education centres par excellence like the UK and the UK), will have no choice innovate and redesign themselves in order to be able to stand out in the global scene and attract local and international students.
3. Financial pressure on students – the current high value of the Australian dollar, high tertiary education fees and the extremely inflated costs of living in Australia make it increasingly difficult for students from other countries to finance their studies here.
3. Digital technologies will transform education delivery methods – students will no longer need to comply with the current system of presential lectures to be attended at pre-set times during pre-set academic semesters.
4. New approaches to learning – students no longer learn by memorising facts but by collaborating with others in the creation of a meaningful collection-explanations of specific topics/issues/events.
5. Industry challenges – universities will need to build deeper relationships with industries in order to reinforce the role of universities as drivers of innovation and growth.
What needs to be done
Australian tertiary institutions need a breath of fresh air. Tourism has stagnated in great part of the country, and the economy will not appreciate a slowdown of student arrivals nor a poorly educated workforce that falls behind world standards. Professor Simon Marginson from the Centre for the Study of Higher Education of the University of Melbourne explains that Australia’s expenditure in public funding on universities is only 0.7% of GDP, a lot less than all the other countries of the OECD, which have an average of 1.1% .
While there’s been no increase in Australian Research Council funding for about 10 years, universities in Asia (Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Korea) have poured important amounts into research in the last decade as have American Universities, which are investing a 2.6% of their GDP, higher than anyone else in the world.
So, what will it take to put Australian universities back on track? The Earnst and Young report proposes:
- Creating new, leaner business models to face the increased competition for staff, students, funding and partners as emerging market universities move up the rankings and private providers develop successful segment-focused models;
- Revisiting the programs offered – Universities need to consider whether they can continue to maintain a competitive position – domestically and internationally – across a broad range of programs, or whether to concentrate resources on a smaller range of programs;
- Innovating the higher education value chain, for example forming partnerships and areas of specialisation in particular areas of the value chain – content aggregation, mass distribution and certification;
- Increasingly funding, conducting and commercialising research in partnership with industry;
- Rethinking the role of digital channels and third party partnerships in recruiting students and delivering teaching and research programs;
- Targeting customers – Universities will need to have a clear strategy and execution around target student segments;
- Back office – University asset bases and administrations will need to be significantly leaner than they are today.