For most Australian universities is ‘hope’ the alternative to ‘change’?

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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?

4 Responses to "For most Australian universities is ‘hope’ the alternative to ‘change’?"
  1. Stephen

    A very interesting piece. Presumably it will need a crisis to drive this change, as it will be a huge change management exercise.

    I’m very interested in the changing methodology of learning. I presume the driver is not really cost, since lecturing is presumably the cheap part of university teaching.

    Where in the world is leading this? Thanks

  2. JJ. If you google ‘inverted classroom’ or ‘MOOCs’ then you will find lots of references. The lead seems to be from North America. Some innovations are from smaller state colleges whose budgets have been slashed. Using technology better for these schools can save money (particularly in science where virtual laboratories are much cheaper than real laboratories)

    Google ‘problem based learning’ and you will find some Australian Universities (at Monash, our entire business course at Peninsula has moved PBL, with some pretty stunning success in terms of learning and student engagement. But PBL is expensive).

  3. To answer your last question, no most VC’s are not up to it (from what I have read the new VU one is maybe an exception to the rule and Stephen Parker has tried hard in some aspects at UC.)

    A couple of contributing factors

    1) small uni VCs are commonly ex big uni DVCs who then are auditioning for a big Uni VC role in 3-5 years. They want to create a mini G8, not piss off any politicians or unions who may sour a future promotion and keep the positive PR going

    2) a VC is most often a DVC before that a Dean, before that a head of school and before that an academic. With respect to your profession Stephen, I am not sure that is the ideal or at least exclusive path for a leader of many thousands of people, many billions of dollars and broad community outcomes..

    There will need to be a significant cultural change and or policy shift to make this happen, we may see some baby steps with deregulation

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