The University of Southern Queensland is on the national Higher Education stage again with its Vice-Chancellor, Professor Jan Thomas, a member of an expert industry panel in Melbourne.
The panel was assembled by the Victoria Institute to consider the recent Ernst & Young Report: The University of the Future.
The moderator for yesterday's event, at Victoria University’s City Flinders campus, was former Queensland Premier and Minister for Education, Anna Bligh.
The University of the Future highlights the significant changes underway in the Australian Higher Education sector created by sector deregulation, the rapid turnover of knowledge, the influence of innovative technologies and global competition. The Report argues that the challenges created will oblige most universities to significantly change their business models over the next decade, asserting that the sector needs a wake-up call.
Professor Thomas said that while she agreed with the Report’s conclusions regarding the degree of change being experienced by the sector, she questioned the author’s claims that the current level of change was unusual for universities and that Vice-Chancellors were being caught unawares.
“Australian higher education has experienced several periods of major change over the past 70 years,” she said.
“Even the most casual student of higher education development in Australia will know that the changes currently underway are a very logical extension of trends that have been underway since the end of World War II.”
Professor Thomas also criticised the suggestion in the Report that all universities were currently operating according to the same traditional university model whose weaknesses and limitations were becoming increasingly obvious in the changing operating environment.
“USQ has never operated according to the inflexible, teacher-centric models associated with old-school universities,” she said.
“We have always seen our mission as broadening higher education participation and attainment. As a result we serve a highly diverse student constituency, utilise sophisticated student-centred learning environments and build strong relationships with our students.”
“This is the model that the report says universities need to move to. In fact, we have been operating this way essentially since our institution was established. If you like, USQ responded to Ernst & Young's wake-up call four decades before it was sounded!”
The Ernst &Young Report places a particular emphasis on the changes resulting from the widespread adoption of online education.
“Online education is just the latest incarnation of location-independent learning models that have a long history in Australia,” Professor Thomas argues.
“USQ has been a leader in this area for decades and remains at the cutting edge.”
“The secrets to utilising online education effectively are to understand that it is not just a matter of delivering existing materials by a different medium. Online education requires its own set of approaches, but all still underpinned by sound principles of learning and teaching.”
“Online education demands student-centred learning approaches. The motivation for the educator must be based on ‘what will produce the highest impact for the student’, not ‘what is most convenient for me’.”
Even more fundamental than business models is the notion of organisational culture.
“When your whole emphasis has been on flexible and conclusive learning models for four decades you build a student-centred collaborative culture that is not readily replicated by institutions making these considerations for the first time,” Professor Thomas said.
“For those who need to, changing business models will be the relatively easy bit. Changing organisational cultures —that will take some doing.”
Jim Campbell, firstname.lastname@example.org, 07 4631 2977
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