Sunday, December 25, 2022

A University is Not Just a Place

Professor Gavin Moodie, University of Toronto, recently discussed the effects of a merger between the universities of Adelaide and South Australia. Professor Andrew Norton, Australian National University suggested urban participation rates in universities would decline if funding went to regional campuses. However, these analyses are focused on the physical location of university campuses, which the Internet, and COVID-19 have made much less important for the future of universities. Most university students while officially enrolled on Australian campuses mostly studied online. COVID-19 made this practice official. Australian regional universities already had city satellite campuses. It is possible to envision a future where students can study online, but go to a local shared campus, when required.

This analysis of campus locations sounds a little last century. Like asking where customers will want the telephone installed in their home. Anyone under 50 is going to be confused: "Install a telephone? I have my phone in my pocket: why would I attach it to a wall?". Same with university locations. The students will look bewildered: "Campus? Why would I need a campus? I have the course here on my smartphone".

 Locations of our universities are somewhat arbitrary anyway. The few km around the Sydney CBD has campuses of Charles Sturt University, Edith Cowan University, Western Sydney University, Macquarie University, Victoria University, Federation University Australia, University of the Sunshine Coast, La Trobe University, The University of Notre Dame Australia (two sites), Torrens University Australia (two sites), Charles Darwin University, and University of Tasmania, as well as University of Sydney and University of Technology Sydney. 

Torrens Building Adelaide, 
Photo by Bahudhara
CC BY-SA 3.0,
via Wikimedia Commons
Adelaide's Torrens Building is an interesting model for Australian Higher Education: multiple online universities wrapped in one sandstone facade

It would be tempting to merge universites in one city. However, it may not make sense to bind universities to a place in this way. The issue is largey one of marketing, not education, or administrative efficiency. Most staff and students will not be on a campus most of the time, so who they administrative report to, where, doesn't much matter. 

Torrens University Australia, provides an interesting model, with specialised campuses across Australia. Open Universities Australia is an example of national cooperation by public universities. That approach could be replicated physically, by regional universities sharing campuses.

ps: I was just contacted by someone who has started a course at Athabasca University in Canada, asking for some advice (I studied there). Of course neither of us have ever actually been to Athabasca, where the campus is. I am not even on the same continent.

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