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The grass isn't always greener...

28 February 2019 | news

By Chris Whelan, Chief Executive, Universities New Zealand

Once a year around 900 people gather in Canberra for the Universities Australia two-day Annual Conference. It’s a chance for leaders and thinkers from across the Australian university system to consider the challenges facing them now and in the future.

A key theme of this year’s conference is trying to work out what the future looks like for the university system—given changing technology, evolving demands from employers, and commentators asking whether universities and their degrees have had their day.

Universities are evolving rapidly and significantly in the face of changing demands from students, employers, and governments. From the outside they may appear bastions of tradition, offering the same products (degrees) they have for many hundreds of years. But internally they are innovating rapidly.

The sorts of changes taking place include:

  • use of technology to support and enrich every aspect of teaching and learning
  • rapid changes in curriculum—offering subjects in areas that didn’t exist even a few years ago such as social entrepreneurship, information visualisation, use of artificial intelligence in automation, etc
  • rapid changes in qualifications, giving students even greater ability to construct programmes of learning and study across multiple disciplines and areas of knowledge
  • employers wanting employees with more practical relevant workplace experience and, ideally, at least some learning on the job.

Some things are not really changing in any fundamental way:

  • Students want qualifications that will set them up for successful lives and careers. They want qualifications that employers will recognise and understand. They therefore don’t want anything too out-there or unproven.
  • Employers don’t care about qualifications as much as students do, but they certainly want to understand the CVs of people applying to them for jobs and to be relatively sure that the people they shortlist are likely to have the skills, knowledge and capabilities they expect.
  • Students want programmes of study that are interesting, engaging and personally meaningful.

Keeping relevant

Keeping curriculum relevant is a continual challenge. Automation is stripping out many of the more mundane tasks in locating, collating and analysing data in fields such as accounting and law. How to ensure that graduates in these disciplines have the right mix of skills is a challenge—as is ensuring curriculum and the skills of the academic staff delivering it are up to the challenge.

Understanding what skills and knowledge new or rapidly evolving industries will actually require in the future is a challenge universities can overcome only by deep and real engagement with industry bodies and key employers. All universities have links, but they are often relatively superficial, meaning academics and employers think they are communicating, but don’t often realise they are not achieving real understanding.

Funding is the major brake on everything. The university systems of both Australia and New Zealand frequently point out that they can’t develop the new, responsive, innovative programmes that employers want because government funding policies won’t allow it.

As the Chair of Universities Australia, Professor Margaret Gardner, AO, pointed out in her speech to the National Press Club of Australia yesterday, quoting Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust lamenting cuts to higher education funding: “We are caught in the paradox of celebrating the global knowledge economy and simultaneously undermining its foundations.”

Innovative workplace-based programmes are often delivered with employers or partly in workplaces and typically involve smaller numbers of students and higher-than-usual levels of supervision and support by university staff. In other words, they are potentially a lot more valuable to the employer and the student, but they are often a lot more expensive.

Governments, not always unreasonably, point out that tax payer money is finite and there are competing priorities.

Because of all of the above, there is massive change taking place throughout the university systems of Australia and New Zealand, but the constraints around funding, in particular, are limiting the speed and scale of change.

From my perspective, New Zealand universities, Government and Industry must work together on balancing these needs and tensions.