In Ireland, in 1854, some two hundred and sixty-two years after Queen Elizabeth I founded Trinity College Dublin, and around twenty years before the foundation of Adelaide University, a new higher education institution, University College Dublin, was founded by John Henry Newman, a Roman Catholic Cardinal.
Cardinal Newman was an unusual Roman Catholic insofar as he started off as an evangelical Calvinist, before becoming a priest in the Church of England, then later he was an Anglican priest, before he finally settled down and signed up for the Catholic priesthood.
He was ultimately canonised as a saint in 2010.
Newman is relevant to our conversation here today as a philosopher and educationalist – and by combination — a futurist.
In pre-regulation days, the best way to advance regularity — both physical and philosophical – was through prescription. Thus, in the manner of academics since time immemorial, Henry sat down and wrote a book – The idea of a university. A rule book, so to speak.
“The philosophy of that book has shaped most, if not all, of the modern universities we know today. You could also argue that it has shaped higher education in the round, all around.”
It’s likely a gift of federation that Australian higher education is as fragmented as it currently is. I could go even further to say that we need to defragment higher, secondary, primary and lifelong learning and really get to grips with K through Life – but that would take us on a different journey.
If we were thinking about connectivity in higher education we could take a leaf out of the French book.
The IdEx project there is amalgamating institutions – across qualification levels – to systematically improve not only their financial stability and sustainability, but also the educational outcomes and the quality of French higher education.
It’s leading to impressive new entrants in the world rankings systems already – but importantly – it’s part of a targeted strategy to invest in France’s national competitiveness through education.
“Enhancing human capital and backing it with additional money to improve the system, to take it beyond world class, not the application of cuts to stymie it and take it backwards.”
I remember back in the dark old days, almost ten years ago, when Ireland had fallen off a financial cliff. The Government of the day put up a new 359 million-euro research fund – that’s $560m in Aussie dollars – at a time of national bankruptcy.
Why? To underpin the smart economy.
The Prime Minister got to answer a media question about the value of the investment in higher education to underpin delivery of a smart economy by asking if the journalist would prefer a dumb one.
The heart of that investment was around driving quality interdisciplinary collaboration across institutions – not rewarding competitive individualism. Smart leverage.
Fast forward ten years and the Irish economy has rebounded from catastrophe, leads globally in the export of software and finished pharmaceuticals, and houses the European headquarters of Google, Facebook and LinkedIn, among many more.
This has nothing to do with corporate tax rates – those incentives perished with the GFC.
Tax-wise, it’s cheaper to domicile your company in Switzerland than it is to have it in Dublin. Rather, it has everything to do with thoughtful education policy and purposeful investment in higher education.
The Canadians have just done something similar.
But back to the Cardinal’s regulatory rule book.
“In it, Newman argued the role of a university was to educate the intellect to reason well in all matters, to reach out for – and to grasp – the truth.”
It’s a simple premise, but it was very controversial in its day. Teach students how to think and how to recognise truth. Sound objectives in the days of false news.
One critic said of Newman’s University: “The young men are allowed to go out at all hours, to smoke, etc., and there has not been any fixed time for study”.
Setting aside the woeful lack of diversity and tobacco-related health considerations, imagine that! No timetabling. The education administrator’s dream!
Fast forward 150 or so years and we are all working very hard to introduce such flexibility to our universities, to teach our students how to think, to reason, to seek out truth through their education – to overcome ignorance, to overcome timetables, and to excel.
And the idea of a higher education, a higher education system for the future is worth contemplating. Now, more than ever.
I shall contain my comments here to universities. That is to say, universities as they exist in our current understanding. Not the mythical oxymoronic ‘unicorn’ of the teaching-only university.
I note that The Conversation has been writing about the advent of this unicorn for nearly five years now. What we have seen in that time is the advent and enhancement of teaching-focused staffing policies. Not the same thing. And not a bad thing.
But a university for the future must continue to advance both teaching and research.
Right now, while information is everywhere – knowledge is not.
A university for the future must advance new knowledge through research.
Putting public money into research is an investment.
And universities are where higher-risk research happens, then it gets translated into industry.
We should be supporting great research and balancing both curiosity and use. Breakthroughs happen at the interfaces between disciplines as fundamental discoveries are adapted for use.
The institution of the future will work even harder to transfer that knowledge not only through the education of our students, but to wider society through partnership, through informing policy, through public discourse and leading by example.
Higher education for the future must provide the same ideal of Newman’s flexibility.
We must continue to move towards the provision of education on demand, and we must afford the same regulatory rigour to online provision as we do to the classroom.
Education which isn’t only linked to bounded degree parchments or stuck inside blockchain buzzwords that record credits. Rather one that is linked to the validated competencies of the successful learner and increasingly measured in smaller units of learning outcome than a whole program or course.
We must adopt new ways to admit and to assess in our higher education system of the future.
We should see the system of the future as a forge, where new knowledge is created from many inputs – and in partnership with others beyond the institution.
There’s a blacksmith’s forge in the centre of Stanford University. The engineering department there was built around it on a framework of explicit vocational educational.
Back in 1891, Leland Stanford wanted his students – all the children of California – to have a practical education. With utility and relevance and excellence and access in equal measure.
A university for the future – a higher education system of the future – could do much worse than to aspire to revisiting those goals.
- Equity of access for the realisation of potential;
- Excellence in all facets of operation; and
- Relevance in all facets of operation.
No need to be elite. Just be principled and adhere to excellence.
No need to be exclusive. Just be principled and adhere to excellence.
No need to be aloof, entitled or enigmatic.
Call a spade a spade and show the relevance of what we do in all cases.
Some of our educational content is intended to teach us how to think, others are intended as the application of that learned thought process.
Higher education of the future should be both responsible and responsive.
It helps shape a tolerant, multicultural society.
It shines light onto the darkness of ignorance.
It uses fact and truth and reason and evidence to educate.
Most importantly, higher education of the future has no ivory towers. Physical or metaphorical.
It, its content and its utility, are truly accessible and supported by our Government to be ever so. Not just locally, but nationally and globally. To all. And for all.
It exists for all, manifest through ‘for benefit’ organisations.
In a highly regulated, monitored and evaluated system, how will we continue to innovate?
How do we ‘educate the intellect to reason well in all matters, to reach out for – and to grasp – the truth’.
We have a world-class higher education system in this country. We might want to think about how we enable it, not how we prescribe it.
Must we wait for some future policy change or funding crisis before we set out to create the higher education system of the future?
The foundations for this future are in our institutions already. All of them.
We must continue to build the Australian higher education system for the future, today.
This is an edited extract from a longer speech delivered by Professor David Lloyd at the TEQSA Conference in November 2018.