Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Melbourne University VC on the Rising Tide of Hostility Towards Universities

Greetings from the Australian National University in Canberra, where Professor Glyn Davis, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne is speaking on "Irredeemable time: the rising tide of hostility towards universities".

Professor Davis began by recommending "The Making of The Australian National University" (Foster & Varghese, 2009). He then took us back to the dissolution of English monasteries as a pointer as to what governments may do to universities. While Australian universities are not as wealthy as Oxbridge, they still have significant assets.

Professor Davis pointed to US research that a majority of Republicans view universities as a negative influence. He suggested a divide where those with a degree vote left and for internationalism, those without will vote for Donald Trump. I suggest this does not apply to all.

I have noticed a tendency for some of our own Australian entrepreneurs to suggest a university degree is not needed for success (while basing their start-ups on the publicly funded research results from universities and staffed with publicly funded PHDs). In May I visited River City Labs in Brisbane, where founder Steve Baxter seemed a bit ambivalent about the role of universities in innovation.

Professor Davis then looked to the promises made by universities as a cause: students gained a degree, a large debt, but not necessarily a good job. Turning to Australia, he then looked at the current government's view of universities with over-paid VCs and a focus on research.

Professor Davis used the Victorian era railway as an example of technology which made some traders obsolete (such as river fishers in Oxford, despite opposition by the university). The 21st century railway is the Internet, with Silicon Vally setting up low-cost education online. He used the example of Udacity offering nano-qualifications. Professor Davis interpreted this as a development of the distance university. It was interesting he mentioned only US examples, not UK Open University which preceded them (and was in part based on Australia's University of New England).

Professor Davis suggested that universities need to better engage with the community, to show their worth. I suggest they also need to be able to deliver vocationally relevant, low cost sub-degree and nested degree qualifications, with an on-line delivery option.

At question time I admitted I had a degree from an overseas "open" university (which happens to be in the field of designing international education). I asked Professor Davis about the role of private for-profit universities, such as Adelaide's Torrens University of Australia. He pointed at that US based for-profit universities had not been able to displace conventional ones and that traditional institutions had proved adept at providing on-line education (in some cases taking over commercial on-line institutions).

Professor Davis was preaching to the converted, with the ANU VC and two past VCs present. This was an informative, scholarly, but also entertaining and vigorous defence of the university.

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