Deeply etched into the DNA of Australian universities is a desire to improve the lives of Australians and people around the world, through high-quality education and life-changing research.
These worthy overarching objectives are unwavering and constant. But in a complex, rapidly changing world, the way we deliver them is being disrupted. The needs of our students and the communities we serve are evolving at speed.
Our sector needs to respond to these changes if we are to stay relevant, deliver our full potential, compete globally and continue to have a positive and powerful impact on our world.
The 70th anniversary of UNSW obtaining university status this year has prompted me to reflect that although much has changed in the scale and scope of higher education, the fundamentals of how we deliver our undergraduate degrees remain largely unchanged.
Even if that assertion can be questioned in relation to 1949, it is definitely the case if I think back to what university was like 40 years ago when I was still a student. The degrees my children have undertaken were delivered in a way which, besides a relatively minor adoption of technology, was the same as my own.
The first students at UNSW, my student contemporaries and my children would all agree that their university experience was wonderful, but they would also anticipate the student experience will change dramatically in the next two decades. As much as we love the university environment we grew up with, change is inevitable.
Given the speed of change ahead, Universities Australia will be increasingly important in facilitating, representing and explaining the shared direction of Australian universities. Our universities are under intense scrutiny. Our collective success relies on articulating a clear, consistent position.
There are many aspects of university activity where a proactive approach to change is needed. I will discuss two of them.
The first area of change which our universities are gradually embracing is new modes of education delivery. We are adopting alternatives to the traditional face-to-face degree structure with developments in online learning and micro-credentialing.
Expanding online education is one way of responding to the sheer scale of demand for education globally. Some see this as posing a risk of dumbing down educational standards, but there is growing evidence that well-designed online learning can improve teaching delivery, feedback, assessment and the overall quality of the learning experience.
Use of top-quality technology is no less expensive than face-to-face teaching, and it also allows for delivery at scale. There is a growing number of online offerings which combine skilful use of group interactions using technology and shorter on-campus experiences. We should enthusiastically embrace these developments.
A recent survey by TechnologyOne found the preferred method for 50 per cent of Australian student respondents was a blend of in person and online, yet 30 per cent said their university’s technology innovation was functional but ‘uninspired’.[i]
We also know that students are today more likely to study in parallel with paid work and other commitments, and for this reason a growing number favour more personalised learning, delivered in micro-courses, with options of face-to-face, blended or fully online.
To better support flexible, skills-based and lifelong learning, we need to be prepared to embrace new ways of doing things. The traditional degree structure will still work for some but others will demand greater flexibility.
The future may involve universities educating hundreds of thousands of students via online or blended offerings, delivered in multiple shorter episodes throughout the course of their lives and careers.
Big structural changes are never easy. But if our objective is to make education both accessible to all who need it and responsive to the needs of a changing society and economy, we must be prepared to entertain new approaches.
A second example of an area where we are experiencing change is in university research.
Without doubt this is a successful and productive public investment. Australian universities have developed excellent research infrastructure, trained outstanding researchers and a nation with just 0.3% of the global population[ii] now provides 7% of the world’s top 100 universities.[iii]
The economic return is enormous – it was recently calculated that the Go8 universities alone generated approximately $25 billion per annum[iv] from a public investment of $2 billion per annum.[v] That does not include the social and cultural benefits of the research nor the economic value of research reputation in attracting international students.
Research in Australia is an extraordinary national success story yet the public investment in research and development is forecast to fall to its lowest level in four decades this year, as UA has noted in its advocacy.
At the National Press Club in August last year, I outlined a proposal for a new fund, a non-medical parallel to the Medical Research Future Fund, to support the translation of research carried out under the auspices of the Australian Research Council. I called this the ‘Australian Translational Research Fund’ (ATRF).
This fund would provide certainty for academics across all areas, including national priorities such as soil and water, transport, energy, the environment, defence, cyber security, history, culture, and languages. The ATRF could be explicitly designed to ensure that the economic return to the nation is several-fold.
At the same time, we also need to make the case to ensure that public investment in basic and earlier-phase research is restored to previous levels. Without that there will be limited research output to translate and apply. And we must continue to seek out additional revenue streams.
This includes collaboration with business on applied research.
The Australian Industry Group have reported that links between universities and business are expanding. Combined collaboration on student placements, research and other projects grew from 29% to 41% between 2014 and 2018.[vi] And UA’s Clever Collaborations work clearly demonstrates the return on investment to businesses that collaborate with our world-class universities.
But recent findings from the Productivity Commission revealed a grim picture of falling investment in R&D over the last financial year, and a steady downward slide to a low of 13% below the 2012 peak.[vii]
The report also stated that ‘the share of business that are innovators … is no longer growing.’[viii]
One approach to address this was proposed last year by Chair of Innovation and Science Australia, Bill Ferris, in the form of an R&D tax collaboration premium for businesses partnering with public-funded institutions. UA has also advocated such a policy.
This would be a catalyst for a far closer relationship between universities and business, so together we could identify new opportunities to translate research into impact.
The overarching message that UA and all of us need to keep emphasising is that research planning and funding is not a charitable donation. It is an investment in the nation’s future. Not just in the financial return, but in the life-changing, life-saving discoveries and innovations that see the entire community benefit.
In her book, The Good University, Professor Raewyn Connell says that ‘in the wider society, despite ‘post-truth’ politics, there is a continuing demand for knowledge, and a respect for the people who produce and teach it.’[ix]
I was reassured to read that 49% of the young Gen Z Australians who took part in Deloitte’s Millennial survey believe universities are best placed to solve the world’s most pressing challenges, compared to 22% putting their faith in government and 11% in business.[x]
Over the coming years, we must work together to keep explaining the fundamentals; the power of the asset that has been developed in our universities.
It involves economic return, adding an estimated $140 billion to the Australian economy each year.[xiii]
And it involves social cohesion, through our leadership in rigorous debate, our sharing of expertise and research into matters of national and global significance and our commitment to protecting free expression.
Ours is a hugely positive story to tell, and we must take none of it for granted.
[iii] According to 2020 QS World University Rankings https://www.topuniversities.com/university-rankings/world-university-rankings/2020
[xiii] 2014 figure, cited in UA 2019 Data Snapshot file:///C:/Users/z3525208/Downloads/Data%20snapshot%202019%20FINAL%20(2).pdf