Collaborate or perish

Valuing the modern university

Brody Hannan

Trade and industry, Education, Arts, culture & society | Australia

22 May 2018

Universities will need innovative partnerships to retain the real value of higher education in the modern economy, Brody Hannan writes.

The debate over the value of higher education in Australia has been raging for decades. It was only this year that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull claimed that “too many kids were studying law degrees”, and criticism of university research in Australia has been around almost as long as the Australian Research Council has been providing funding to what the Daily Telegraph considers “nutty academic research projects”.

It’s time we look at the history of this debate to prove that higher education is invaluable for all, and to see how it can remain that way.

Historically, there have always been criticisms that there are too many people receiving a formal education. It wasn’t that long ago that there was debate about the leaving age of students from high school. Before that, it was ‘why should we make school compulsory?’ If you turn the clock back far enough, there was a point in history where most primary school children were considered to not even need an education.

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The role of universities has changed markedly in the modern era. Traditionally, universities were not a place of training people for professions. There was opposition from the established institutions to the teaching of practical and vocational subjects such as medicine and engineering. Universities, they espoused, should instead focus on the more traditional subjects such as philosophy and theology. It took Australia’s oldest university – the University of Sydney – 70 years before it established Australia’s first department of engineering in 1920.

For early academia, the purpose of higher education was to be a purely subliminal exercise – a training of the mind  – whose sole purpose was to cultivate individuals. Indeed, all of the arguments against the widespread uptake of higher education exist if you wind the clock back far enough.

Nevertheless, universities and attitudes continue to evolve alongside each other.

We are well aware of the many broader personal development benefits of higher education. University graduates are healthier, more likely to vote, and more likely to engage in sociable and charitable work. This is not to mention the higher personal incomes of those with higher education, and the strong correlation between national GDP and educational attainment levels in society.

And one thing is clear – the trend of growing numbers of tertiary education institutions is unlikely to end. While in Australia there are 43 universities, the UK has over 100. The US meanwhile has more than 2,800 institutions granting four-year college degrees. At the end of World War II, there were just 30,000 students enrolled in Australian universities – by 2013, this figure had grown to 1.3 million.  These large numbers of universities now compete with each other on the recruitment, funding and publication battlefields.

At a time when Australian universities receive one of the lowest shares of public funding in the OECD, policymakers must plan for a future of greater demand for education, more universities, and less funding.

Encouraging universities to work together – and with industry – in productive and collaborative partnerships that provide better education for all, will be key to solving this issue.

While there are already several research partnerships between Australian universities – mostly facilitated through the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence – there are few at the teaching level.

It is clear from historical trends that it is not the demand for university research that is increasing, but for a university education. Policymakers and university leaders alike should consider avenues for collaboration in education as well as research.

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The power of massive open online courses (MOOCs) may hold one answer. For example, Ivy League universities in the US offer free short courses in project management, poetry and artificial intelligence, to name a few. Similarly, online courses could be offered at universities in Australia, based upon the expertise already developed in others.

For instance, the Australian National University should be able to translate its collaborative space research with UNSW Canberra into courses which are offered to students of both universities, taught jointly by their academics. Such courses would then be able to be delivered to universities in South Australia, for example, which is predicted to be the epicentre of Australia’s future space and defence industries.

Additionally, more university courses could be partly or entirely taught by industry leaders. While there are examples of this happening already, they are not common practice. Many universities use ‘gaining industry experience’ as a key drawcard in attracting prospective students. Having more courses co-taught by industry professionals would be the ultimate indicator of equipping their students with the right skillsets and priming them for employment.

Such reforms to the curriculum design process would make university education not only more collaborative, but also more relevant to industry. Moreover, universities would reduce overheads in developing new courses and updating curriculums to ensure their relevance to the needs of the contemporary economy. They would also help to address calls from governments to ‘lift productivity’, as well as concerns from the private sector that university graduates are unprepared for the workforce.

The key to solving the ever-growing competition between universities while maintaining their relevance is through inter-sectoral collaboration. Critically, this must occur not just at the research level, but in how education itself is delivered. Such integration in the teaching process has the potential, once again, to convince governments, industry and the wider public of the inherent benefit of higher education.

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