Saturday, December 19, 2020

Future Shocks for Australian Universities in 2021

Troy Heffernan has penned the thoughtful piece "COVID-19 has destroyed academic careers and stalled equity programs in Australian universities: Death knell or opportunity?". This follows the  The Research Whisperer's "Surviving 202.". Dr Heffernan suggests that COVID-19 has made the situation worse not only for those casually employed and on short research contracts at university, but also diversity and inclusion. The call for reforms to undo entrenched privilege. However, rather than just asking someone else to do something, I suggest individual academics could also do what they can through their teaching and supervision. While individual academics don't have much say in university or government policy, they can change how their students are trained and thogh this bring about wider changes.

In early 2020 I evacuated my ANU office. I hoped it would be weeks but I took with me enough equipment to work online indefinitely. There was very much the sense of saying goodbye to colleagues who I may not see again. In the last few weeks I have is visited the campus, and seen life returning to the often mentioned "new normal".There is the hope of a return to face to face teaching, likely starting with small groups early in 2021.

Higher education has altered for many staff and students. But this was not unexpected. Some of us had predicted and prepared for a sudden transition online years before. I had hoped this would be a gradual planned change, with the tipping point around 2020, but had also envisaged and planned for a sudden emergency shift to e-leaning.

For ten years I have been teaching online. For much of that time I have investigated how to do it well and how to transition the Australian higher education system. For Australia's regional universities online learning is routine and a natural evolution of their previous distance education. I was an online student at USQ, of how to teach online. However, for capital city institutions, and particularly prestigious research universities such as ANU, online is very different to  business as usual. 

The ANU made important strategic decisions before the pandemic which have greatly aided the response. Key to this was the appointing of Dr Kim Blackmore to head the Interactive Learning Project (iLEAP) in early 2019. This gave the university a head-start in the transition online due to COVID-19. This work continues, with consideration of how to conduct a smooth transition back to the classroom. One option is blended learning, with students in the classroom linked to those who are online. This is technically easy to do, but presents major pedagogical and logistical challenges.

Much as been written about precariously employed university workers. The key to solving this problem, I suggest, is to ensure that graduates of advanced degrees have skills for employment outside the university sector. Where the workforce has limited skills, employers have the opportunity to exploit them. It may sound strange to describe people with doctorates as lacking in skills, but if all you can do and all you aspire to do, is work at a university, then your skills and choices are limited. 

Academic supervisors can, should and are, changing the training of graduate students to include skills for jobs and getting jobs outside research and academia. This will also help those few who are lucky enough to get a job in academia: knowing how to supervise staff, deal with budgets and talk with people outside your discipline, are skills which could greatly improve universities.

Supervisors need to combat the myth of secure ongoing employment in higher education. The pandemic has shown that there is no security in employment in universities. Advanced students need to be trained in how to deal with this reality. Successful researchers do not spend all day in a lab in a white coat, they spend at least as much time as an entrepreneur chasing up funding, as a personnel manager dealing with staff, a finance manager on budgets, and as a teacher inspiring the next generation. Those are skills which the student can be formally trained in, rather than picking up somehow. In particular, the Canberra Innovation Network has had a key role in adapting training for entrepreneurs to train researchers.

While we can hope for the start of the end of the pandemic in 2021, this will not necessarily bring back international students to Australian university campuses. Rather than treat e-learning and shorter more flexible programs as a temporary measure, universities need to make this a routine part of what they do. 

As I cautioned in 2016 and more recently, Australia's deteriorating geopolitical situation could see most remaining international students leave campus suddenly during 2021. In any case there will be increased completion for these students. Australia newspapers were unprepared for the rivers of gold from classified advertising being taken away by the Internet, Australian universities should not make the same mistake and be ready as domestic and international students take up online and offshore study opportunities.

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