Back to the future for Australian universities
This op ed feature was written for Campus Review at its request by NTEU National President Jeannie Rea but mistakenly appeared in yesterday's edition under the byline of Carol Miles. Campus Review has since apologised. Here's what was submitted:
The latest contribution to the future of higher education debate from corporate consultants Ernst &Young reads like a Back to the Future script where we travel 15 years into the future to be beamed into a pre-Dawkins higher education world comprised of a handful of elite research and teaching institutions and a plethora of smaller specialised teaching intensive institutions. In the Ernst and Young future these specialist institutions no longer have benign names like institutes of technology or colleges of advanced education but have been transmogrified into more menacing niche dominators or transformers.
The NTEU urges caution in accepting the inevitability of the direction of change to universities advocated in the Ernst & Young report, University of the future: A thousand year old industry on the cusp of profound change, released this week. No one disputes that universities are undergoing significant changes, or that there is resistance to change. Universities have faced many big challenges in the past, coping with the move from religious to secular institutions, adapting to new technologies like the printing press, even letting women in!
The problem with much of the debate on the future of universities is that it lurches around, grabbing the latest report, policy pronouncement, or new initiative and then jumping to the next. Lately it has been the MOOCs, the United States Ivy League initiative offering up free online courses. Whilst the current Coursera offerings are very attractive, I’d agree with Ernst and Young that these are currently free as the brand is developed, and they may develop in all sorts of directions. They are not going to wreak havoc on Australian universities overnight and put academics out of jobs. Comments in the media like all Australian first year maths lecturers could be replaced by one online lecturer are just creating panic. We have always taught from textbooks, written by discipline leaders, and created courses picking up the best materials, online and in print from around the world. As academics, we make choices and craft courses based on our own expertise and knowledge of our students.
The drivers of change identified by the University of the future report, namely increasing mobility and the impact of technology, the democratisation of knowledge as well closer links with industry, are inevitable and indeed are already having a profound impact on the way that universities deliver their teaching, research and community service obligations.
The one driver, however, which is not inevitable in Australia, is increasing the contestability of markets. While it might be true that universities face ‘an environment where every dollar of government funding is contestable’, it will be government policy choices that determine how much of that funding is allocated to higher education and our public universities.
While advocating market based contestability, Ernst and Young also say:
The sector is also one of the main drivers of Australia’s economic future as a key source of economic talent, insight, new ideas and intellectual property required to build a high performing knowledge economy. The sector also provides life-shaping opportunities for thousands of students from economically disadvantaged communities. Thus the shape and performance of the sector matters critically to the future of the nation.
As more and more students enrol in university and the proportion of the population with degrees increases, the expectation on governments to continue to invest in higher education will also increase. Responsibility also sits with governments to advocate for the advantages of higher education.
NTEU has consistently campaigned for greater government investment. Whilst we recognise the current Labor Government has increased funding, repairing much of the damage of the previous Coalition government, funding still does not match their increased expectations of universities. At current funding levels universities cannot keep doing what they are already doing, let alone transitition well.
Universities are already well versed in being ‘leaner and meaner’, but this translates in a particularly unsustainable way. The most stark and critical evidence of this is that universities have turned half of their teaching over to casually employed academics who are hired by the semester and paid by the hour.
Despite their best efforts, casual academics cannot put in the time to give students the encouragement and feedback they crave. They generally do not write, review or evaluate the courses. This is traditionally done by academic course coordinators, but increasingly involves other professional staff with expertise in these areas. In adapting to the increased demand of government for astounding amounts of performance measurement data, as well as the large numbers of students, Australian universities have employed hundreds of professional staff with expertise in data management and reporting, and in student advising and mentoring. Additionally, new fields of learning and teaching support have proliferated to work on the adaptation of the new digital technology tools and to work with the increasingly diverse student populations. Indeed, there is a lively debate in the sector as to what extent these developments are fracturing the academic role.
However, the crass reality is that rather than employing the next generation of academics to replace the increasingly aging academic population, universities are employing the next generation on casual or short term contracts. Overall only 35% of current university employees are in continuing positions.
Universities have depended far too much on government performance funding grants for learning and teaching support positions constructing them as new initiatives, when they are very quickly becoming part of ordinary business. This is not sustainable. An increase in the funding of each CSP (Commonwealth Supported Place) to support each student’s learning is still vitally needed.
Universities do have decisions to make, but again it is short term to see the opportunities presented through the educational adaptation of digital technologies primarily as a way of cutting staff costs. First year Maths students desperately need tutors who can answer their questions and work through the problems. Just as it is too hard for a new university student to learn only from the textbook, so it is to rely on the internet. A particularly rich learning environment would be one where students have the access to the world’s best materials and then have a class of peers and tutor to affirm their learning. This scenario needs more academic and support staff, not fewer.
Any discussion about future scenarios should not start with an assumption that a flexible and adaptable workforce is a flexibly employed workforce. Precariously employed staff are not able to commit to a university career. Yet universities need people who are prepared to work in multidisciplinary and occupational teams and have a stake in the success of the university project over the longer term.
Investing in universities of the future includes creating sustainable careers in higher education.