Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Future of Higher Education Funding in Australia

In "Excellence through diversity: Funding flexibility the key", Professor Ian Young (Vice-Chancellor) and Professor Gareth Evans, Chancellor of the Australian National University, discuss possible changes to university funding, in response to the Norton/Kemp report on higher education funding.

Professors Young and Evans point out that Australia has almost achieved 40% university education for young people and ask if the current system serves the students and national objectives. I suggest the current system places too much emphasis on university education for school leavers and not enough on other forms of vocational higher education, better suited to life long learning.

Australia should aim for a widespread participation in Higher Education for its citizens, however most of this should be provided by vocational training institutions, not universities. The normal path for a school leaver should be to gain sufficient vocational qualifications for employment and then consider what further study they need, with the option of university to supplement vocational training.

Professors Young and Evans argue that the fixed funding model for undergraduate courses in Australia constrains innovation in education and results in overcrowded lecture theatres. However they do not mention the main challenge for Australian universities today: transitioning to on-line education. I suggest that within the next five to ten years 80% to 90% of university research and education will be conducted on-line. In my view, any review of education funding and regulation has to remove the disincentives to on-line education for Australia institutions, to allow them to make this transition, or face being put out of business by international competition within ten years.

Professors Young and Evans envision undergraduates working in laboratories and offices with researchers. However, most researchers should not be sitting in offices and labs at a university: they should be out in the field, in hospitals and commercial workplaces, working with the community, government and industry. Our university academics need to be re-skilled for this new work environment, so they can make a contribution to the economy and so they will be equipped to teach students in how to work this way.

Australian students will increasingly have a choice of world class higher education, which does not require them to move countries, or to give up their day job. We need to change the current Australian policy mind-set which sees full time students fresh out of school, with no other commitments, as the typical higher education student. The typical student now has a job and/or family commitments. Students want to study part time and want most of their education and research to be conducted on-line. We need to flip the university, so it is primarily an online resource supporting students and researchers out in the community. If Australia does not do this, our students will simply enrol online elsewhere.

The issue of equity and access to higher education is one I suggest could be best addressed with suitable introductory courses. Students who do not have the necessary academic background need extra help to prepare for university study. This can be provided through vocational higher education institutions, not university courses.

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