ROGER SCOTT. Postscript on Australian universities: ‘are we near the Kodak moment’? Part 3

Jan 31, 2018

In March 2017, under a headline ‘Digital disruption lowers costs of pricy masters degrees’ the Australian Financial Review reported:

A round of price-cutting has broken out in the market for high-priced masters degrees with four Australian universities offering students a pathway to complete part of their degree online at a steep discount. [Tim Dodd, AFR 18 March 2017]

Are we near the ‘Kodak moment’ for Australian universities?  

The impact of changing technologies

The four universities (University of Queensland, ANU, Adelaide and Curtin) are among 22 around the world – including MIT and Columbia – that are using edX to offer a low price route to a masters degree via a US-based ‘Massive Open Online Course’ (MOOC) which gives them a new credential called a MicroMasters that provides the equivalent of at least a 20% discount overall on costs. Suddenly universities have been thrust into a much larger technological market-place with a brand which must look over-priced. Davis notes:

The Australian online education market is worth an estimated $5.9 billion a year and growing quickly, ‘an attractive prospect for Silicon Valley players such as the ‘MOOCS-for-credit’ offered by Kadenze or the self-explanatory offering of’.

This technological challenge is only one component of a fragile future which has engaged the more contemplative of Vice-Chancellors and university planners. Glyn Davis’s The Australian Idea of a University [Melbourne University Press, 2017] is full of warnings about the consequences of complacency in retaining the existing practices and financial arrangements when so much else is in flux. The impact of technology is at the forefront already, as students expect key components of their study material to be available electronically, and making infrastructure based on mass lecture halls outmoded.

Changing economic and social forces

These changes are linked in turn to changing social and economic forces. I belong to a generation where the only work permitted (or even allowed under the terms of my Commonwealth scholarship) was to be work-related, such as vacation employment with potential future employers. Now a very large percentage of students – local and international – help defray their living costs by working in casual employment, particularly in the catering industry. Shift work cannot always be adjusted to fit in with expectations of attendance, even though survey evidence suggests that students do prefer personal contact rather than written notes and electronic recordings. Is the next generation of universities going to be like the final verse of a once-popular song about stage productions, ‘closing when the customers don’t come’? Perhaps universities are not very different from show business.

Davis and a few others realise this and have argued for the need for greater diversity because of the flexibility this would confer in meeting market challenges. In particular, this might mean welcoming new institutions which are not trammelled by the requirements of being comprehensive, metropolitan and research focussed. For a more extensive discussion of this issue and the limits of Davis’s perspective on diversity is provided by Dean Ashenden in his recent Inside Story article entitled ‘Diversity… for the others [28 January 2018].

The search for diversity: imperial precedents

In his historical overview, Davis alludes to American and German experience but notes the stranglehold of imperial experience.   Having worked in several ‘imperial-style’ institutions, I would suggest that there are vital lessons to be drawn from what worked in the imperial past, as well as lessons from more recent but now discarded models in the Australian states.

The key component of a diverse and disaggregated public system is the existence of public confidence that the institutions within them offer quality outcomes for both the students and the taxpayers. My first teaching experience was with Makerere College in the 1960s, initially part of London University and then part of the University of East Africa (Durham University had similar arrangements with Fourah Bay in Sierra Leone). Makerere was widely regarded as the leading university in black Africa and attracted students from across the sub-Saharan part of the continent. All this in an era when racist regimes were still firmly entrenched further south. Makerere’s reputation depended heavily on certification from London University and the use of external examiners who provided that certification. As a young lecturer, I learned  valuable lessons about curriculum and method from the senior gurus flown out for regular visits.

I was pleasantly surprised when I later joined the staff of the Queen’s University of Belfast, (formerly Queen’s College of the University of Ireland) to discover that the system of external examiners had survived partition.  In both locations, the university managers appreciated that the validation would only be credible if the highest standards of people and processes were adopted. The exchanges over the curriculum, the exam papers and the honours theses were occasionally awesome but it offers a model which worked, even if it cut across notions of institutional autonomy and academic freedoms often seen as quintessential to ‘real universities’.  [As a footnote, post-imperial Tasmania in 1960 still had relics of its own external collegial relationships with, in my case of ancient history, the University of Adelaide, whose staff helped design and grade my honours work.]

Relevant past experience in the Australian states

If Australian governments in their wisdom chose to dissolve the current cumbersome single model of a university, it could do well to look at linkages of diverse and smaller institutions with a system of external examiners, which had beneficial effects on staff as well as the students and parents seeking reassurance about quality. This begs the question of what such diverse and smaller institutions might do (as well as what each of these categories might be called).

Here there is a mountain of experience across all the Australian states but I can only report  first-hand about Queensland. Imagining for a moment that the existing model was no longer fashionable or sensible in response to social and technological change. Imagine Kangan and Martin having been taken seriously around 1968. Queensland would still have specialist institutions staffed by practitioners and scholars focussed on particular areas of vocational preparation – art, music, agriculture (once located in multiple rural locations), mining and engineering, accounting and law, separate teacher training for secondary, primary and ‘kindergarten’ teachers.  The private sector would be offering specific training in several areas of management, including former secretarial colleges (after their own ‘Kodak’ moment provided by the dawn of word-processing). All would now be rapidly adapting to offer relevant technological preparation – certified as training providers by a form of inspection and accreditation.

The various specialist teachers colleges were forced by state and government decisions into broadening their spectrum, notionally into three discrete areas of study, in order to qualify as Colleges of Advanced Education.  Each state had an accreditation agency with significant influence over curriculum and staffing. I moved from poacher to gamekeeper for several agencies across a number of states, drawing on my own experience of being subject to imperial external examination systems and later a teaching role in Canberra CAE. I believe the system worked well (but I would say that, wouldn’t I?). There is no doubt that the CAE experiment – although never reaching the ‘parity of esteem’ sought by some of its academic leaders – provided for a blend of practitioner and scholarly staffing resources which have since been attenuated by the drive towards the single model of a ‘real university. Colleges also offered short courses to meet the needs of local and overseas practitioners, such as development administration and local governments in the case of CCAE in my time. Perhaps this system of accreditation linked to market responsiveness could be an item for consideration by the revitalised Tertiary Education Commission envisaged by Davis and Ashenden.

Back to the Future?

The final point to address, the one which could cause most heartburn in seeking to promote diversity, is what to call these lesser breeds short on size, comprehensiveness and research worthiness. Two possibilities suggest themselves. First, where there are some extant examples, expanding on the use of qualifying adjectives such as Technology (as in UTS, QUT and the historical legacy of RMIT University). Second, there might be non-metropolitan universities and sundry others being called ‘State Universities’ as opposed to those recognised as ‘National Universities’, more of them smaller in scope but dedicated to serving the needs of local communities and responsive to state-level imperatives.

An alternative which might be more palatable to ‘the great and the good’ would be to resurrect the term University College in its original university-linked form, as used in Armidale, Newcastle, Wollongong, Townsville, Darwin and Canberra. For a brief moment, the University of Canberra enjoyed a sponsorship deal with Monash as a quid pro quo for avoiding absorption into the ANU, but the acknowledgement of this relationship soon shrunk to near-invisibility on graduates’ testamurs.

In a future more tolerant of diversity, specialised institutions might be designated not only  by place but also by purpose, such as a University College of Agriculture, of Art and/or Music, of Theology or Education, Management or Engineering (or even Medicine! – after all the doctors have organised themselves already into Colleges of specialisation to create their own hierarchies of excellence). It would be made clear that University Colleges – like many in the US – did not carry with it an expectation of funded research being required to justify their existence. Although in the current job market there would be many able and ambitious academics willing to work in Colleges and surreptitiously maintain their research skills while teaching farmers, kindergarten teachers or artists or dental technicians. Just like the old days, they might even aspire to parity of esteem.

But there is little room for optimism. In ‘Diversity… for the others ‘,Ashenden has looked at the poor survival rate of systemic-change agents dealing with higher education in Australia:

Davis is not the first and will not be the last to put proposals along these lines. He is well aware that their boldness means that they have a very hard row to hoe. Ironically enough, they would probably require a Dawkins to be achieved. The Tertiary Education Commission idea is not popular among his colleagues, as he points out. And, as a student of path dependency, he is also aware that the structures of the education system and the processes of policy formation are heavily defended.

Roger Scott has held academic management posts as Head of Department, President of an Academic Board, Dean of Arts, Principal of a CAE, briefly a Vice-Chancellor and was Director General of Education during the Goss years in Queensland.   He has taught political science and public administration in Uganda, Northern Ireland, Canada, several Australian states and Canberra.  He has served on several state and national committees relating to aspects of tertiary education.  He currently occupies an honorary position in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Queensland.  

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