Now is the Time for the Higher Education to be Bold

Posted: 01/07/2020

Aristotle said, “fortune favours the bold”. Louis Pasteur had a twist on it with “fortune favours the prepared mind”. And modernising it slightly, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, added to it with “fortune does favour the bold and you’ll never know what you are capable of if you don’t try”.

Being bold is showing a willingness to take risks – to be daring, intrepid, courageous, brave and valiant.

How does this connect with the Higher Education sector? Well, we seem to be not only in a period of constant change but one where the changes are all coming from outside and requiring the sector to react.

COVID-19 forced all providers to develop or expand online teaching rapidly. It reduced income from international students and forced job cuts and staff realignment. Now, we are hit with a shakeup of domestic fee structures, not only favouring job outcomes in areas of need but also allocating the fees at a unit level rather than degree level. This latest development has the potential to cause a power shift away from faculty administrators and towards students when it comes to determining degree structures.

There hasn’t been a lot of time to sit back and think over the last few months as we have lurched from one issue to another. But times of change are also times of opportunity. I wonder who amongst us will be bold over the coming years.

Learning and teaching, seen through the eyes of the students, is not significantly different between institutions in Australia. Except for Victoria University introducing the block model, most institutions are doing now what they have done for decades.

I first attended a university in 1980. There wasn’t a computer, mobile phone or tablet in sight. Students sat with pen and paper, and furiously wrote down the words of the acclaimed sage who preached to them. Lectures were 50 minutes long, recorded on a cassette tape that had to be turned over half-way through, and we had two each week.

There was a 50-minute tutorial and maybe a practical session, depending on the subject. Knowledge resided in the lecturer and the hard-copy books and journals that were available in the on-campus library. The world of learning and teaching revolved around the lecturer, and the lecturer knew everything there was to know.

Fast forward 40 years and every student has an electronic device of some sort. Most have several. Knowledge from every corner of the world is available free and online through the library’s online search, as well as through the many free search engines. The library still has books, but few are used.

Lectures are still face-to-face, 50-minutes long and there are two a week, with fancy software replacing the cassette tape. There is still one 50-minute tutorial and a practical if required. The world of learning now revolves around the internet, and Wikipedia knows everything there is to know.

Wikipedia might claim that it is a bold change, but universities cannot.

As we move to the end of 2020, our “annus horribilis”, I hope many institutions seek opportunities to stand out from the pack, to be unique, to be great.

Will we see mainstream universities without an arts and social science offering? Will we see others specialising in arts and social science? Or business and law? Or STEM? It would be tragic for discipline areas to disappear completely, but why does every university need to offer every discipline? Will we see Australian students ‘go away’ to university as we see in the UK and US?

How will teaching and learning change? Will some be dominated by online learning, while others are blended or entirely face-to-face? Will we see different teaching terms and blocks?

The government seems clear in stating that student numbers will increase through to 2030 (the Costello baby-bubble). Still, additional funding will be limited, and universities must reduce the cost of teaching. We could just do what we do now but do it cheaper – bigger classes, shorter terms, more exams, less practical work. That would be easy – but would it be right?

Go on Australia – be bold.

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