Issue #1571 31 October 2012
Back to the future for Australian universities
The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) urges caution in accepting the inevitability of the direction of change to universities following the release of the Ernst and Young report, University of the future: A thousand year old industry on the cusp of profound change.
“Responsibility sits with the government to ensure that our highly respected public university system is funded to deliver on the expectations of the community and industry,” said NTEU national president Jeannie Rea.
The Ernst and Young report concludes: “The current Australian university model – a broad-based teaching and research institution, with a large base of assets and back office – will prove unviable in all but a few cases”.
Rea notes that the report identifies the main drivers of change which will inevitably bring about this transformation of the sector as:
- The democratisation of knowledge as a consequence of massive expansion of on-line resources;
- The contestability of markets and funding as a direct consequence of declining public investment and the adoption of market design policies to fund and regulate higher education;
- Digital technologies changing the way courses are delivered;
- Global mobility of students and staff; and
- Integration with industry to differentiate programs (through work integrated learning) and to support and fund applied research.
“The NTEU agrees that some of these drivers, namely increasing mobility and the impact of technology, the democratisation of knowledge as well as closer links with industry, are inevitable and indeed are already having a profound impact on the way that universities deliver their teaching, research and community service obligations,” Rea says.
“The one driver, however, which is not inevitable in Australia is increasing the contestability of markets. While it might be true that universities face ‘an environment where every dollar of government funding is contestable’, it will be government policy choices that determine how much of that funding is allocated to higher education and our public universities.
“We do, however, agree with the report’s finding that a failure to increase public investment in our universities means that the current model of higher education is becoming unsustainable.”
The NTEU argues that it is now up to the federal government to decide whether it wants a higher education system comprised of a handful of elite research intensive universities concentrated in Australia’s capital cities or to maintain the current system where 38 public universities deliver a broad range of education, research and community services to students and communities who as little as twenty years ago were denied these opportunities.
“There has been a failure of the government to increase public investment to cover the real cost of higher education and to regulate the provision to only those institutions capable of delivering the highest quality of education and research,” said Rea. “As Ernst and Young predicts, Australia could end up with a sector comprised of a handful of elite ‘status quo’ universities and ‘niche’ dominators and ‘transformers’ all touting for customers (students).
“It is the government’s responsibility to make this choice clear to all those involved in higher education as well as the Australian public. If, however, universities are to remain independent educational and research institutions and form a critical part of Australia’s social infrastructure, then they require additional public investment.
“If we are not careful, the Ernst and Young report will be read like a Back to the Future script for the pre-Dawkins era. This is not the way forward to the exciting opportunities enabled by digital technology and global mobility.”
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