Thursday, August 31, 2023

A Larger Role for Colleges in Australian Higher Education?

Professor Brian Schmidt, Vice Chancellor of the ANU, is reported as suggesting private for-profit colleges will take over educating new professionals. This would leave universities free to research, & educate advanced students, the VC envisaged. However, I suggest specialist colleges, associated with public universities, and TAFE, could provide undergraduate education just as efficiently as the private sector, and should be allowed to do so. 

Even a research-intensive university can accommodate undergraduate students. Twenty years ago, I accepted an invitation to be a visiting fellow at one of our universities. I had expected to be conducting research, but within five minutes of sitting down in my new office, I was asked to give "some lectures". This started two decades investigating how to provide professional education, linking universities, vocational education, and industry. I now help a team of researchers, professionals from different disciplines, educators, and people from industry, to provide work-integrated learning to undergraduates, and post-graduates. For my MEd, I investigated how to do this for a mix of domestic and international students, in a classroom, in the workplace, and online. Fortunately, my investigations uncovered the need to prepare to teach online in an emergency, which kept students from campus, and proved useful when COVID-19 struck.

As I wrote in my submission to the Higher Education Review, Australian universities should continue to be funded to focus on educating professionals, and conducting applied research for industry, while supported by fundamental research. A wholesale de-Dawkinsation and privatization of higher education is not needed, and I suggest not in the public interest.

There is a role for specialist educational institutions with expertise in teaching, rather than research. But, despite the views put to government by private sector lobbyists these don't have to be exclusively, or primarily, private for-profit institutions. Professor Schmidt, mentioned on of the lobbyists, former minister Christopher Pyne. Alongside private colleges, Australia's universities could expand the specialist teaching arms they already have, and our major TAFEs can grow into the role. Also, the dual sector institutions, which are both universities and vocational, can do more. 

Only a very few students need a research-intensive education. Even fewer need such education at the undergraduate level. Most students are destined for industry, education, or government work. They need to know, in general terms, what research is, but more so they need deep technical knowledge of their field, and broad people and project skills. This is not a new requirement, and Australia's universities were founded to turn out working professionals.

There is a myth that there was a golden age when Australian universities were well-funded to produce pure research, with students whose only aim was to explore new knowledge. However Australian governments established universities to produce working professionals and do research to support the economy. The golden age of Australian universities was more about engineering facilities funded by mining companies needing staff, and better ways to dig up stuff, than fundamental research.

In the Dawkins Revolution of the 1990s, specialist teaching colleges in Australia were merged into universities. To remain accredited, the new university could not specialize in teaching in one field but was required to also conduct research in multiple disciplines. The new universities adapted, by conducting both research and teaching. The for-profit Torrens University was able to be accommodated in this system.

It is a fallacy to suggest that having a generalist university results in high costs, or that in some way academic freedom is expensive. Also, it is untrue that online delivery results in poorer educational outcomes, or that for-profit companies naturally produce better outcomes for students. 

Recent experience of expanding funding for vocational education shows what can go wrong. Private for-profit vocational education providers were allowed to accept government funding, with insufficient regulation, resulting in billions of dollars wasted, through poor quality training delivery, and in some cases outright fraud.

Rather than a new education revolution, Australia could have an evolution, with existing universities allowed to establish specialist teaching institutions. Australia already permits for-profit universities, and there could be a mix of not, and for profit, under the one, tight, regulatory framework. 

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