Stephen Matchett has a nice post over at the Australian web site looking at university differentiation. It focuses on Latrobe University but could equally apply to every University outside the Go8. While a couple of others (perhaps UTS) can successfully brand themselves as elite, world-class research institutions, most are simply kidding themselves if they believe that they have a future as ‘me too’ institutions.
When will this change? Only when a vice chancellor at one of these universities has the leadership ability to stand up and say ‘we will be different’. Only when the union and academic staff support this difference. Only when the federal government and the regulators it is busy creating get out of the way of differentiation, And only when the relevant university, as an institution, understands how it wants to be different and why.
The latter is the key point. When I raise this issue, the common response is that Australian Universities are following a tried-and-true-model and that it is risky to change. But that response ignores the technological change that is changing the university sector world-wide (e.g. MOOCs) and the government policies that make the current university model in Australia risky, if not unsustainable, for those institutions outside the ‘elite’ universities. The alternative to change will be hope that the government will come along and rescue a failing university – without imposing change.
How should the relevant universities differentiate? One obvious way is to focus is on the undergraduate students (which, judging by policy, is where the government wants the focus) and on teaching involving small groups and technology. Technology has provided access to the best lectures in the world and a mass of confusing information for students. The academic’s job is not to ‘lecture’ but to ‘facilitate’. The course leader will guide what the students access from the mass of material available, facilitating discussion and peer-to-peer learning (both face-to-face and via internet and intranet tools), using feedback to modify the material being accessed in real time (knowing what the students do not know or are not understanding) and at the end of the course accrediting the students in terms of their understanding. There are a variety of ways to do this. Using problem-based learning is one approach. Using an ‘inverted classroom’ with an emphasis on feedback, real-time testing and modification, and small group interactions is another.
So which will be the first university in Australia to differentiate itself by taking technology and innovative teaching as its mission? This is not simply using innovative approaches in some courses but taking this approach across all courses.
This is only one (and, quite frankly, the most obvious) path for differentiation. I am sure there are plenty of others – but they will take work by our universities to discover, design and implement. Are our vice chancellors up to it?