Sunday, June 9, 2024

Further Disruptions for Australian Universities

Future Disruptions for
Australian Universities Report
Dr Ryan Young at the ANU National Security College Futures Hub, has prepared "Future Disruptions for Australian Universities" for the Universities Accord Review Panel. The Futures Hub's logo is, appropriately enough a black swan. The accord panel has been advising the Australian Government on the future of higher education. This report aims to inform the panel on future factors effecting universities. These include the obvious, such as generative AI and digital technologies in general, competition from non-university bodies for research and teaching money, and geo-political tension causing government to micro-manage university (my term not the author). Also the report looks at changes in the demographics of students, with fewer students overall, and more older (not all bad news as I find older students are easier to teach).

Most of the disruptions discussed are hardly Black Swan unanticipated events, and most and already being addressed by university with gradual evolution, rather than sudden disruption. Geographically dispersed work-forces were catered to in the past by distance education, which has been made much easier in the last few decades using the Internet. AI has been developed over decades, and those of us in the tech sector have received briefings over the years on its progress, before Chat GPT came to public attention.

As the report suggests, the world may be moving to a period of ‘poly-crisis’, with multiple global and regional events to deal with. However, the world has only been relatively crisis free for a small wealthy, mostly western, section of the population. The rest of the world, including academics, have had to learn to cope with an uncertain world. Australia's universities, despite some challenges, will still be in a relatively privileged position, with more and more stable funding, benign security situation, and stable governments. That will continue to provide a competitive advantage against institutions located in countries with unstable repressive regimes, where their campuses are threatened by terrorists, their own or neighboring military.

A military confrontation in the region, involving Australia, might result in the sudden loss of almost all international students. In 2016 I presented students of computing ethics with a hypothetical on cyber-war over a confrontationa. Later in the year I suggested Australian universities should be ready to switch to online learning, if their international students were unable to get to campus due to regional tensions. Unfortunately this remains a possibility, and so universities should keep online options ready for teaching domestic and international students together

As well as the effects of a physical military confrontation universities need to respond to online attacks. As well as attempts from criminals and nation states to steal intellectual property, there is a risk to personal information which could be used against staff, students, their families and organisations. The internet may also be used to ferment unrest at universities. 

The author suggests there are opportunities for universities in these challenges. One example not mentioned in the report was the COVID-19 pandemic, which allowed universities to move from a lecture based model of learning to a blended one. The report points out that universities bundle and cross subsidize cross-subsidise activities. However, this is not by accident, with governments requiring universities to be multi-purpose, multi-discipline, and forcing institutions to seek external funding. 

The author suggests disruption could come from how teaching and research are provided. However the effect of technology has been over-promised in the past, and Australia has an unfortunate track record with private for-profit educational institutions in the vocational sector. An area which the report mentions, but seems least important is changes to university campuses. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, most students did not attend lectures. The change brought on by the pandemic was the elite universities and academics, were forced to admit this change had happened, and officially made the changes which regional universities, and vocation education had already made.

The report suggests digital technology and AI might make universities obsolete. I suggest this is unlikely, as despite their traditional image universities have fostered and embraced such changes in the past. It is more than 50 years since Open University UK started offering technology enhanced education (using some techniques learned from Australia). Australia currently has one for-profit foreign owned university, which is experienced in online education, but has not presented a significant threat to existing non-profit private and public institutions.

Australia has a dual sector system, with university alongside vocational institutions. There are considerably more private companies in the vocational sector. Australia has a competitive advantage with its close regulation of both sectors. The greatest risk, I suggest, is governments suddenly deciding to deregulate post-secondary education, using a flawed model of education imported from the USA. But not all government changes are negative. The funding of study hubs, first in regional areas, and now expanded to outer metropolitan areas is a useful innovation.

One form of disruption for universities could be from the disintegration of degree qualifications into something more like the process used in the vocational sector. Universality students typically enroll in a two to four year university degree. The institution can then plan for this student, minus dropouts, over those years. Vocational students build a qualification from a series of shorter qualifications, and go through a recognition of prior learning process for each. As a result the student may spend only a small amount of time enrolled, and this, along with fees and resource use, may be intermittent.

As vocational modules are nationally standardized, students can easily move from institution to institution, receiving full credit for prior study. In contrast university students face difficulty, and loss of credit due to non standard courses. External bodies, such as  the Australian Computer Society have developed micro-credentials which offer industry recognition of skills alongside the university system (I am on the board which oversees the standards for micro-credentials). Universities have attempted to create their own micro-credential systems, mostly by converting individual courses or groups of courses into a micro-credential. However, this then creates the expectation among students that larger formal qualification will be built from the micro-credentials in a modular way. The Singapore Institute of Technology has announced competency based, stacked short qualifications, with work integrated learning, and project capstones.

As well as making planning of resources and funding more difficult, new forms of education require new skills of those teaching. Australian law does not currently permit specialized teaching universities. All universities must undertake research in multiple disciplines. Also, in the public's mind, the quality of university education is erroneously linked to research output. As a result universities hire academics based on research output, then require these staff to teach. When teaching consisted of giving lectures and setting exams, this could be done with minimal teacher training. However, experiential and workplace learning, with complex stacked course structures, authentic assessment and blended delivery require advanced teaching skills. This creates a challenge for universities, as well as new non-university educational institutions which can leverage the expertise of the vocational sector. 

The need for government intervention is illustrated, I suggest, by the lack of university funded study hubs in regional areas. Some universities opened their own study centers (such as UWA Albany), but these were exclusively for their own students. The savings from sharing facilities were rejected by universities wanting to compete for students. One area of cooperation for Australian universities has been Open Universities Australia, where many institutions, including regional and city based elite institutions, offer online courses. The government could put in place policies and funding for more such cooperation, to assist domestic students in regional areas, and also in competing for international students.

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