Speech - The University of the Future

21 November 2012
Victoria Institute, Melbourne, public forum
University of the Future Forum 21 November 2012 
TOPIC: Ernst & Young Report: The University of the Future
10-minute address by panellist, Professor Jan Thomas

The Future of Australian higher education is a real passion of mine, but I must confess to being somewhat bemused by the excitement that’s been generated over the Ernst & Young Report. 

Let me explain. It isn’t that the basic premise of the Report isn’t correct – the sector is undergoing change and is needing to adapt. It’s just that the idea that this is in some way surprising, or is a cause for commotion or panic is somewhat bewildering.

To characterise change as something that is unusual for universities and certainly to characterise what is currently occurring as representing "the biggest challenge to universities in 800 years" is somewhat misleading. 

Universities are unusual institutions which can date their heritage back as far as eight centuries. This in itself says something very special about the robustness of universities as institutions. Over this long time frame, universities have had to adapt to the effects of wars, pestilence, reformations, counter-reformations, the rise and fall of states and empires, the scientific revolution, the enlightenment, and the list goes on. I think that throughout all of this there will have been just a few challenges that could be seen to rival what we in Australia are going through at the present time. 

In fact just in Australia, and just since the Second World War, we have seen
  • the great growth in research capacity undertaken after the Murray Review in the 1950s, 
  • the sector expansion following the Martin Review in the 1960s, and 
  • the Dawkins reforms with their often highly traumatic institutional amalgamations in the 1980s and 90s 
which all represent candidates for causing "the biggest challenge to universities in the last 800 years" – or at least may be seen as rivalling anything in the current post-Bradley era. The fact is that:
  • change to the sector has been ongoing, 
  • universities adapt, 
  • everyone copes – that’s the normal cycle.
So yes, we are going through a period of significant change and the next few years will see some academics in their comfortable tenures shaken a wee bit, but to anyone who has paid even the slightest attention to what has been happening in higher education over the past few decades this will come as no surprise. And, in fact, what we’re experiencing now is actually a very logical extension of trends and changes that have been underway for a very long time indeed.

I disagree with the Ernst & Young analysis in taking as its starting point the idea that all universities are currently operating in the same way.

There is indeed a problem in the sector in terms of the degree to which disincentives to diversity have remained present as a result of government policy and practice. 

There are, however, universities that have taken different paths to the norm – which are well represented here tonight - and I am proud to be able to say that I am the Vice-Chancellor of just such an institution. So while Ernst & Young are currently promoting the ‘Streamlined Status Quo’ Model as a desirable future state or some universities, USQ has been operating very much in this mould for the past 40 years!
  • We serve a highly diverse student constituency – towards 39% are low SES, usually first in family, and a high proportion are from regional Australia
  • We have utilised distance education strategies and the use of educational technologies to both extend the reach of our programs and enhance our on-campus learning experiences since the 1970s. In fact, 75% of our students are distance students. 
  • We have used distance strategies to teach international students in their home countries since the 1980s.
  • We are focussed on professional academic programs, and place a strong emphasis on the employability of our graduates
  • We have nurtured a range of local educational partnerships, including with TAFE, over the past decade, and
  • We have kept our research and engagement activities focussed, applied and relevant.
In fact, I suspect that we are somewhat beyond the Streamlined Status Quo model, given that of the 75% of our students who study off-campus, many, or perhaps most, never set foot on a USQ campus! Importantly, we’ve never operated in what the Ernst & Young Report calls "the current state" and, what’s more we’ve never aspired to. How we operate simply suits our mission and ensures our sustainability. If you like, we’ve responded to Ernst & Young’s wakeup call 40 years before it was sounded.To be clear, I head a multimillion dollar international business as do my colleagues here on the stage. Let’s not mince words - we talk of
  • EBITDA, current ratios’
  • profit, debt to equity ratios’ and 
  • business process improvement along with the best of them.
But as a business we provide four key roles in society - educating our next generation of leaders, building national productivity, solving the world’s big problems through research and providing social and scientific critique essential for a mature democracy. 

Why is it that business analysts look at universities, identity differences with other enterprises and immediately assume that something is wrong with us? Look at the track record:

  • 800 years and still going strong, 
  • able to build Australia’s fourth largest export industry (in the form of international education) despite a regulatory environment that any other business enterprise would find intolerable, and
  • serving a dizzying array of stakeholders and addressing a host of community obligations while being expected to function as a profitable business in a marketplace that is still only partially deregulated. 
And dare we mention the staff we have to manage! The great US academic administrator Clark Kerr defined universities as "a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking." Yet these fernickety academics remain the key to the success of universities achieving their unique missions. They’re our secret weapon and we’d be fools not to love and nurture them. Managing such autonomous professionals is a tough job – hospitals are not doing it well; universities are. Please give us some credit.

The Report makes a point of highlighting the high ratio of what are called support staff to front-line staff and conclude that universities are inefficient. For USQ, the ratio of professional to academic staff is one of the highest in the country. Does this make us inefficient? Stated plainly, the answer is NO. Indeed we run with a very healthy operating surplus, a high current ratio and an extraordinarily low debt to equity ratio. 

Professional staff are actually key elements to the learning environment in the future oriented student-centred paradigm that the report describes. To focus only on academic staff as contributing directly to this learning environment takes me back 15 years when we thought that academics were the font of all knowledge and students just empty vessels to be filled, as Laurillard used to say.

The forum organisers had asked me to say something about on-line innovations and delivery as USQ has been a pioneer in this area. Let me say just a few things:
  • USQ’s model has been a model of ‘an inclusive education’ for all. Our basic aim has not changed in over 40 years. However, the way we go about it has.
  • Marketing and communication with students is essentially through technology - social media and the like are currently our mainstay. Crowd sourcing is normal for us.
  • All our courses are available in blended mode. Technology-enhanced and online education strategies provide important tools for achieving the goal of access, but with generational change, it's now expected for on-campus students as well. 
  • A very important principle to appreciate is that online education demands specific approaches to education – what we call specific pedagogies. It is not just a matter of taking what you know from face-to-face learning and delivering it through a different medium. This will be a lesson that some will learn faster than others
  • The USQ model involves online learning but its more fundamental elements are 

o student-centred learning,
o ensuring that we understand our students and their needs,
o aiming for flexibility,
o thinking innovatively, and
o adopting an approach to the student learning journey based on building relationships

  • You may have heard about MOOCs. A massive open online course that is at large-scale participation through open access. People worry about MOOCs taking over the world. It’s important to remember, though, that information is not the same as knowledge, and knowledge certainly isn't the same as wisdom. Information is plentiful, and MOOCs enhance access to information, but I suggest that using it to construct knowledge will require much more. 
For years, my university has been a part of the consortium of 30 international universities in the Open Educational Resources University initiative which provides access to courses for free, support by academics who volunteer, and assessment for a much reduced fee. These courses are accredited, and will build to degrees. This is our contribution to the democratization of knowledge across the world that has been underway for decades. 

Regardless of the way students access their education, the principles of good teaching still apply. USQ resides at the cutting edge of digitally enabled learning and teaching. We are a classic "click" university. Will that mean the demise of "brick" universities? I think not. There is plenty of room for a diverse range of providers in a world with an insatiable thirst for knowledge. 

I’ll leave it there. Thank you again for the opportunity to be with you here tonight.

Tell a friend!