Tomorrow’s universities



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Chris Whelan says while demand for university education continues to grow, there is increasing pressure to deliver new models of teaching and learning.

Chris Whelan, Executive Director, Universities NZ

Chris WhelanAround 2012 it was predicted that MOOCs would be the death knell of universities. In the mid-nineties we heard that the internet would be the death knell of universities. In the 1970s it was television. And in the 1940s it was radio. In the 19th century it was the appearance of mail-order courses.

To date none of these predictions have been borne out. Maybe there really is some change coming that will kill the university as we know it, but my view is that the predictions are based on a faulty understanding of what a university does.

If the only role of a university was to fill young minds with information then yes, the internet, TV, radio or mail-order encyclopaedias would supplant them. In reality, a university provides a place where capabilities such as critical thinking, communication skills and teamwork are developed in a flexible, supportive and generally enjoyable learning environment. Imagine producing an engineer or scientist without giving them time in the workshop or laboratory or without structured workplace experience.

The Productivity Commission has recently announced that it will carry out an inquiry into new business and delivery models for tertiary education. The review comes at the request of the Ministers of Tertiary Education and Finance. 

The wide-ranging terms of reference will assess how key trends, especially in technology, costs, skill demand, internationalisation, and demography will drive changes. As well as exploring other ways of working, it will look at how to increase access and achievement especially by Māori, Pasifika and at-risk youth.

The challenge for the inquiry, as it examines the opportunities and uncertainties ahead, will be to predict the trends from the fads, and ideology from workable, innovative approaches. 

We currently have a world-class university system. All eight of our universities are ranked in the top 500 in the world. Ninety-eight per cent of our graduates are in employment two years after graduating and most are working in degree-relevant jobs.

The current system isn’t broken. However, that doesn’t mean that it can’t do better.

Demand for university education continues to grow. Twenty-eight per cent of the population is now university educated and that proportion is rising. Thirty-eight per cent of young people are starting university within five years of leaving school. Twenty years ago, a degree was a way of differentiating yourself to an employer, now employers just expect to be able to choose from a pool of graduates.

The focus now is on producing graduates that will stand out to employers. All universities are now delivering degree programmes that aim to develop the full range of soft-skills and applied technical capabilities demanded by employers. This is done in a structured multi-year programme of classroom teaching, internships and hands-on skill development that just doesn’t work as well in an online environment.

Simultaneously, universities are encouraging, supporting and integrating co-curricular experience and skill development into the degree programmes. Business students are encouraged and supported to learn foreign languages and experience a semester abroad as part of their business studies. Students are expected to do internships and to apply their skills and competencies in a structured, supported, series of work experiences. 

Technology can assist a lot of this, but it can’t replace it. Universities are adopting and adapting the online learning tools and using them for delivering teaching to on-campus students. By delivering lectures online and supporting them with instant quizzes and problem solving, this is improving student understanding and retention of knowledge, while freeing up precious lecture time for problem solving and hands-on learning. 

The main constraint to technology adoption is now funding. University funding has declined significantly in real terms over the past decade and this has reduced the ability for them to invest in trialling new business models or technologies.

Despite everything I’ve said to this point, an ageing population and rapidly changing technology is likely to see many more people needing to reskill or upskill mid-career. The majority of these people will have job and family commitments that will mean they have to study where they live and often study while they work. That, more than anything, is likely to drive pressure towards new models of delivering teaching and learning.

To me, that’s probably the best place to start thinking about what tomorrow’s university must look like.

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