Reimagining universities in contemporary society

| October 28, 2016

Digital and business disruption challenges the tertiary sector as much as the rest of the economy. At the recent GAP Summit Professor Brian Schmidt explained why both universities and government education policy must innovate and embrace change.

Universities have experienced relentless growth in scope and number from the founding of the first in Bologna in 1088. Universities assumed a research role in the 19th century and proliferated after World War Two.

37% of young Australians now go to university, compared to less than 1% 70 years ago. This exponential expansion allowed institutions to become ‘sloppy’ in their ways, but digital and business disruption now challenges the tertiary sector as much as the rest of the economy.

Technological advance, including massive open online courses (MOOCs), offer opportunities as well as threats to traditional institutions and could secure their central role in knowledge economy. While not every innovator will go to college, many people will develop their ideas through that experience. Universities are no longer ‘ivory towers’ as their historic role as repositories of knowledge has been supplanted by the world wide web. Information is now ubiquitous online but, as AC Grayling observed, the internet is a source of information rather than knowledge or wisdom. The universities’ advantage in these areas remains but must be innovated upon if they are not to be superseded by new business models.

The average student attends a university just 12 kilometres from where they were raised. This lack of interstate competition in a supposedly demand driven system has marginalised people from more remote and rural regions who have less access to education, lower expectations of attendance and less money to fund their studies. The academic scores used to allocate students to ANU courses are now adjusted to compensate as students from outlying regions with poorer scores may actually outperform their more privileged metropolitan counterparts. Young people from non-traditional backgrounds must be helped in new ways, given the high living costs of attending traditional institutions. ANU’s student intake has the highest average Australian Tertiary Admission Rank in the country but this is a source of embarrassment as well as pride as it proves the need to diversify its clientele.

ANU now offers MOOCs to encourage access, and 250,000 have attended online compared to just 99,000 graduates from ANU itself since 1950. Such MOOCs may not yet equal the quality of traditional ANU courses, but they already outstrip courses offered by some other universities.  Online courses will only expand in their number, quality and reputation as market pressure refocuses universities on undergraduate teaching, an activity which has not been their priority in the past.

While academics still trust the lecture as their primary teaching method, evidence shows that students increasingly prefer alternative methods. Universities must therefore offer new approaches and real world experience to their students if they are to retain them. If fewer students now attend orthodox lectures, preferring to work in the library or learn from their peers then institutions should work with this trend, rather than fight it. The benefits of socialising with intelligent, highly educated, like-minded people are manifold and this ‘coffee house effect’ has always been a major part of the university experience. The ANU has the highest percentage of students living on campus in the country and must leverage this to generate new value and ideas.

Accreditation is a bulwark of university power but this will also evolve as traditional degrees are depreciated by firms and students in favour of aptitude tests, micro courses and curricula pieced together from several institutions. Such courses may not find favour with the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA), but businesses and students now prize more focussed and relevant skills. Many academics steadfastly oppose this trend but universities must embrace it to stay relevant to student and commercial needs; however, universities are still higher education institutions, rather than training colleges, and should retain faith in their strengths and the wider benefits of an undergraduate degree. Universities are often criticised for not producing ‘business ready’ graduates, but the value of a broad based education inevitably reveals itself over the course of a career.

Administrators will need time to convince tenured academics of the need for change, but while they can take a long term view, they must still steer their slow turning ships in the right direction. The knowledge economy is the key to ongoing university success, as well as national economic development. Universities must also renew their offerings to encourage the 60% of Australians who do not attend to use their services. Education will increasingly become a lifelong pursuit, rather than the preserve of the undergraduate, as people retrain to meet changing job requirements, but industry must be willing to work with tertiary education as universities embrace the commercial world. Academic secondments to industry and joint investments in people, facilities and research should be encouraged, while greater academic collaboration between institutions must also be fostered. ANU now offers new recruits to the Australian Signals Directorate an 18 month master’s degree, for example, which allows them to work on ‘grand problems’ with input from Cisco, Telstra and Data61 while they wait for security clearance.

Universities generated $19.3 billion in service exports last year, more than the natural gas industry. Marketing to foreign students was born of financial need but Australian universities now earn 7 times more income from foreign students than Canada, 3 times more than the USA and twice as much as Britain per capita. This income supports academic quality without undue calls on the public purse, while HECS-HELP allows domestic students to fund their education at a reasonable rate. However, these income streams cannot be ‘milked’ forever and new sources of income must be found.

Both universities and government education policy must innovate and embrace change to maintain academic excellence, strengthen financial returns and support a prosperous and well educated population.



  1. Max Thomas

    Max Thomas

    November 21, 2016 at 10:53 pm

    The Expanding University
    Prof. Schmidt’s team made the startling discovery that the Universe is expanding at an ever-increasing rate. In this blog he makes the heretical suggestion that the university may not be at the centre. The social and economic forces at play might actually overcome the gravity, not to say inertia, of communities of masters and scholars. Looking on from a distant galaxy, this old ‘Thunderbird’ thinks you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that the nature of learning is changing exponentially and that teaching has to keep pace with that change. “Captain Virgil, was that a Red Shift?” “I believe so, Lady Penelope: close the visor and make it go away!”