Thursday, April 12, 2018

Weaving a New Higher Education Fabric for Australia

Robert Griew
In "Three lessons from a decade of higher education policy stalemate" (April, 2018), Robert Griew investigates what he characterizes as the "unraveling" of policy over the last ten years. However, by focusing on federal policy he is missing a bigger source of disruption, which is move of higher education on-line.

Griew asks why "... universities get only to discuss
the amount of funding they receive from taxpayers for a product basically taken as a given ...". I suggest this is because the universities are afraid to raise the topic of the quality or quantity of product they are delivering. Universities have been in the business of research, with education as a byproduct. There are not good systems for measuring the quality of education delivered, or the quality of the tools used (particularly not the quality of terracing staff or materials). There are good reasons why education should be provided in programs much smaller than a degree, but university are not well equipped to design such education.

The reforms proposed by government of the last ten years have been relatively minor and piecemeal. Universities are now under threat from thousands of start-ups, each trying to bring higher education into the gig-economy. Some of these attempts to uberize education are from business people, some are academics from prestigious universities. Some start-ups have backing from major corporations out to make billions, others are not-for-profit with a reform agenda to provide low cost education. The risk for universities is that just as "the knowledge" of taxi drivers has been devalued by ride sharing and quality journalism has been replaced with click bait for on-line ads, new forms of instant education will see research and deep learning jettisoned as not cost effective old economy baggage.

Universities, are desperate to avoid discussing these issues and like other heavily regulated industries are trying to hold on to their legally protected status for as long as possible. By doing so they risk not only their own existence but also what has driven the modern economy.

Griew offers three suggestions:
  1. Get outside the beltway: This is an unfortunate Americanism. I suggest whatever problems there have been with Australian education policy, we are at least not in the mess the USA is with student loans. Griew suggests resetting the policy to address jobs, services, businesses, community and safety. This is a sensible suggestion, essentially asking what our universities can do for us. I suggest what such a policy review would come up with are shorter vocationally oriented programs which blend corporate VET, government TAFE and universities.
  2. Engage beyond the club – the “tertiary” question: Here Griew explicitly mentions the Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector and the non-university higher education providers (NUHEPs). Australia runs a system with two and a half higher education sectors: VET is at the lower level and then universities above that. NUHEPs are somewhere in the middle, being more than VET, but less than universities. How to handle NUHEPs is a problem many countries have (India has tried and failed to come up with a workable approach).
  3. Make life easier for Education ministers: Griew's last recommendation I did not understand. Ministers with funding responsibility will always be under pressure from sectional lobby groups. Universities carry out research and train people at doctorate level in how to apply political pressure. It is not surprising that universities can apply lobbying pressure with scientific precision. While universities are a major component in Australia's third largest export industry (education), government are going to remain reluctant to do more than tinker.
However, Griew, like many discussing eduction policy, seems to be engaged in an exercise of deciding who should arrange the deck chars on the Titanic, while the iceberg approaches. Higher education is in the process of moving from the campus to on-line. This has profound implications for education as a business as well as how it provides a service to the community.

In 2011 when I wanted some more education I enrolled on campus, a few kilometers from where I live in Canberra. A few months later, I decided to supplement this with a couple of courses on-line from Queensland, 1,000 km away. In 2013 when I looked for a further study, I checked programs across Australia, but then realized it was just as easy to study on-line overseas. I ended up enrolled in Canada, 13,000 km away.

Increasingly students will expect a normal higher education program to be something they do on-line, via a mobile device, perhaps with occasional visits to a campus. Policy needs to change to accomidate this new normal.

I am reminded of the situation in the early 1990s, when it became obvious the Internet (and later the World Wide Web) would change the ways government and private organizations work. However, government and business leaders simply ignored this, until well after the change had started. Those working at lower levels had to work-around official policy, until their leaders caught up.

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