Australian Higher Education in 2020Imagine it is now the year 2020. What is higher education? There are fewer, larger universities around Australia and some more private ones.
Some institutions which invested heavily in MOOCs found themselves swallowed up by the consortia they helped foster and are now little more than brands and local branches of global degree factories. Other institutions had their reputations irreparably damaged in the MOOC crash of 2015.
Distance Education is the New NormalThe typical university student today is part time, studying on-line by what used to be called "distance education". It is rare for a student to be full time and on campus, due to the cost and the questionable educational value of that mode of learning. Students are expected to undertake education throughout their working lives and most advanced students also teach.
University courses are now designed by interdisciplinary teams of subject matter experts, educational designers and media specialists. There are still a few exceptionally talented individual academics who hand craft their own courses, but this is a very rare skill. Research supervision has changed less, but now is typically carried out with a team of supervisors and students, linked by an on-line network.
Because of the cost of designing developing and testing a course, they tend to be underwritten by consortia of universities around the world. As professional jobs now are largely based on global skills standards, as required under international free trade agreements, this global standardization of education is seen as normal and natural.
Learning Space Like Executive Lounges
While many university students never see their campus, there are still campuses with a lively academic and cultural community. About one quarter of the student and staff can be expected to be found on a campus. Most steeply raked lecture theaters have been demolished and replaced with flexible multi-use TEAL (Technology Enabled Active Learning) rooms. University learning commons at the leading universities now look like the executive lounge of an airport, with bookshelves replaced by comfortable chairs. At the lower end of the market tertiary education occupies co-working spaces, with cheap trestle tables and second hand chairs. Tutorials look much the same as seven years ago, except for the wall screen allowing the participation of remote students.
Students and staff still complain about each other and about workload. However, the analytical packages monitoring on-line learning in real time can identify most potential problems with workload before they become too serious. While there are still human student and staff counselors, their jobs are made much easier by AI assistants which which will patiently help even the most difficult student.
The distinction between research and coursework advanced degrees has largely disappeared. It is assumed that any advanced student will be undertaking some form of investigation of new knowledge, but will still have to learn some new basic skills in class.
Most students undertake their first post secondary education at TAFE. The TAFEs are collocated at many upper secondary schools. Students are expected to learn basic vocational skills in their chosen profession, even if they hope to go on to advanced university studies. It is not unusual for students to be undertaking courses at multiple institutions simultaneously and at different levels. The student of the 2020s has difficulty understanding the idea of studying at just at one "place" at a time.
Under federal legislation, tertiary students have one ID for all institutions, with an e-portfolio of all their student details. Universities are free to teach whatever they want and set their own entry standards. However, where an institution claims to meet an external accreditation standard, it must also admit students, and give credit for their work at, similarly accredited institutions. The result is that a student can pick and choose courses from across Australia and around the world.
The AI assistants which help students and staff have their origins in the dead-man switch used in transportation. A train driver must push a switch, or operate the controls, periodically to show they are not incapacitated, otherwise an alarm sounds and brakes applied. In the same way, the AI assistant looks for a lack of involvement by each student and by their teachers, and issues helpful advice. If the AI assistant still detects no response, they alert specialist staff to intervene. The AI assistants are welcomed by students, but objected to by university academics, who don't like to be reminded of their obligation to respond to students in a timely way.
Australian has several of the world's leading universities, out of proportion to its size. There are a dozen major institutions, most formed by consolidation of existing universities. This trend started with some members of the loose consortium of Open Universities Australia merging to form the Open University of Australia. This created a major global university with both a research reputation and education programs. The members of Australia's Group of Eight universities reacted by each acquiring the remaining smaller universities to bolster their education offerings.
Previously universities had concentrated on either research, with a small number of advanced students, or education, with a large number of undergraduates. During the second decade of the 21st century it was realized that universities did not need to choose between size and quality, research and education, on-campus and distance: all were possible together. While research and education never had much to do with each other at universities (and still don't), it was released that quality research and education complemented each other.
Australia is now the dominant provider of quality tertiary education in the world. The USA suffered a loss of reputation with clumsy government attempts at regulation and a student loan bubble which saw many institutions bankrupt. The UK failed to get out of its small OxBridge mentality and after years of neglect by government, in 2014 the UK Open University moved to Edinburgh to become the Open University of Europe, in the newly independent nation of Scotland. While India and China have several mega-universities with millions of students, these have not been able to maintain the professional reputation of Australia's institutions.
Australia's higher education reputation was greatly enhanced with the passing of the Palmer Bill in 2015. The bill put in place a National Independent Commission Against Corruption, with the power to investigate academic fraud at any higher education institution registered in Australia. After the jailing of several senior academics for corruption, the sector put in place effective quality controls.
As in previous eras, the main resource the student of today requires is time to study and a willingness to learn. Obviously as almost all courses are on-line, they need a computer and Internet access. They don't need an expensive computer, with a under $100 tablet being sufficient. They do not need a particularly high speed connection, with the typical 1 Gbps wireless link being sufficient. In fact as asynchronous delivery is the predominant mode for education a 48kbps link of the 1990s would be sufficient. Much time was wasted in the early 2000's debating the value of asynchronous versus synchronous deliver, until they were found not to be different at all.
Education in 2020 still involves "books", but these are mostly eBooks. Also there are still assignments, examinations and other forms of assessment. Most of these are administered on-line and cheating is still an issue (while technology develops, human nature remains much the same). Research students still submit a "thesis" but most professional doctorates are awarded based on an e-portfolio of work.
The value of Australian universities to the wider community was recognized in 2019, with the awarding of Australia's highest civilian medals for bravery, to the staff of the Australian university computer security centers. The Asian war of 2018 saw universities in the front line, defending Australia's network border from cyber attack. Frustrated by their lack of ability to penetrate Australia's telecommunications network, the enemy targeted sixty submarine launched cruse missiles on network nodes. This was the first mainland attack on Australia since the bombing of Darwin in WW2. The attack failed due to the resilient nature of the Internet and the dedication of staff who remained at their posts throughout the bombardment.
Australia responded with an air-strike under cover of a cyber-attack, devised by computer scientists and special effects artists. Fake news reports, and messages appearing to be from the enemy's own forces, reported Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet aircraft of RAAF No. 1 Squadron being launched by HMAS Canberra and HMAS Adelaide off the enemy coast, in a Doolittle style raid. The video of the aircraft leaving the ships' ski-jump flight decks were created using CGI digital special effects and false radar images of the aircraft were painted by RAAF EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft. Twenty F/A-18Fs, transiting from the Australian mainland with air-to-air refuelling, attacked unopposed from the opposite direction. The raid caused limited damage, but the resulting in a loss of face for the enemy regime brought the war to an end.