5 principles that your university should embrace to survive

The idea of the university has come along way since it emerged in medieval Europe. Always an idealised semi-sacred place, in recent decades that rarefied concept has taken a few knocks. Many universities now face crises of one sort or another – student dissatisfaction, underfunding, staff over-work and boredom (yes, simultaneously), access, corporatisation and bureaucratisation.

Meanwhile, given online training and networked research cultures, some traditional practices seem quaint, if not completely obsolete.

Stanley Fish’s observation that:

In general, higher education does not know how to speak for its interests. It offers a stance that is defensive, cowardly, and likely to be ineffective.

seems as pertinent today as ever. There is a distinct lack of public reflection about what higher education should look like, despite the fact that it has been in crisis in Australia for 30-odd years.

How can we reinvent the university so that it will continue into the next century? In this post, I’m going to propose some principles that bear little resemblance to the corporate monsters many of our universities have mistakenly believed that they must become. My ideas are Australia-centric, but I’d love to hear whether they are relevant in other nations.

1. A bigger university is not a better one

Since deregulation, Australian university administrators have embraced expansionism. Forced to generate their own income in an increasingly competitive environment, they have sought to attract more and more students, and have therefore needed more staff, buildings and bureaucracy – all difficult to deliver in a timely fashion. As a result they have blundered about trying to pin the tail on the donkey while administrators lurch between satisfying competing demands in a resource poor environment.

To cope with the influx of students, courses and programs have become streamlined. Personalised education has been sacrificed at the altar of neoliberalist profit and competition, although the higher education sector continues to market itself in terms of quality and exclusivity.

Semi-automated and online bureaucratisation has been instituted as a solution to the complexity resulting from expansionism. This suits some students better than others. If you are disadvantaged or time-poor, the corporatised university is probably a difficult place for you to negotiate.

Universities need to rethink their expansionist response to financial pressures. Universities should be smaller, focussed on quality, and not driven by a supermarket one-stop-shop mentality.

2. Forming the higher ed cartel

Who said universities had to compete with each other? And yet, that’s what happened. Higher ed should be about collaboration, not competition.

Even universities in the same geographical location compete with each other for the same student pool, and in order to fill up the places, they reach further down into student competencies often regardless of a student’s aspirations or skills. This is particularly intense in the full-fee paying international student market, many of whom can barely cope with their study.

Given economic pressures, universities often place themselves in a race to the bottom, as each cash-strapped competitor tries to get away with as little service as possible without losing market share (ie, students). Poor standards and problematic ethics are often facilitated by the lack of transparent information available to prospective students – not just about facilities and contact hours, but about pedagogy, workload, English standards, assessment styles and independently audited class sizes. Unlike the school system, there is relatively little independent comparative information published about our universities.

The smaller universities of the future should cooperate with each other. They should distribute programs between them, but collectively be responsible for program quality. If a student doesn’t like that university, or doesn’t get a place at that university, then they can apply to a different state.

We need to dismantle competition between universities so standards can actually be lifted and made transparent.

3. The elephant is not in the room (because it’s online)

eLearning is a big challenge for universities. Many (but not all) programs of study can be adequately studied online. Professional associations may soon be admitting members not based on university study, but on other forms of testing which they administer themselves.

At the moment, many students believe they need a qualification from a recognised university, but this is likely to change in many fields as the private, dedicated eLearning companies such as Coursera become more mainstream. The Couseras do a better job at delivering eLearning courses than universities, who tend to use extremely cumbersome software, have extremely slow development times, and face resistance from traditionally minded staff and students. I’m not sure how long students will remain impressed with the prestige of a traditional university degree when there are cheap and accessible online alternatives in many fields.

We face the emergence of a 2-speed higher educational system. One is wholly online and the other is face-to-face. Online is cheap and convenient but doesn’t suit all learners or all disciplines. Face-to-face is expensive, time-consuming, and can more easily be translated into the threshold qualifications that some professions (like engineering or medicine) require.

Sadly I suspect that in the future, you will simply not be a successful learner if you can’t handle elearning – just like in the past you were not be a successful learner if you can’t read a textbook or absorb lecture material.

I predict the emergence of hybrid qualifications – you start it online, then you visit a traditional university for the practicum, and finally undergo some sort of professional testing is independent of any specific institution. These professional bodies should start to rise above the nation-based certification processes that simply don’t make sense any more (although, from a governmental perspective it is a very good way to keep migrants out).

4. Education miles

Universities need to learn a lesson from real estate: location, location, location! eLearning is globalised and a-locative. Universities are the opposite. However many universities attempt a global rhetoric and a global relevance, they can never do this as well as eLearning. Brick-and-mortar universities need to forthrightly embrace their locality. Locality should be reflected in programs, in community, in ecological and sustainable concerns and in education miles – how far do you have to travel to our classroom?

As part of the expansionism impetus, our universities seem hell-bent on surmounting locality, but by doing that they’ve thrown out the baby. Location is what should make a university unique.

5. Research needs to be free

Academic research needs to be extracted from commercial publishing houses and placed into the online global community. Only then can we truly say that we have a free exchange of opinion, and that is what academic cultures are meant to thrive upon. There are already moves in this direction, but it is not enough.

Our research cultures are clinging to nineteenth century precepts, in which a research paper may still take 18 months to be published after it has been accepted. With the rate of change that is upon us, this is far too slow. Research often becomes redundant before it is published. The next research paper is inadequate because it should have referred to a paper that was waiting for some sort of virtual ink to dry.

Why universities need to change

Student dissatisfaction is only one result of the headlong rush of our universities to embrace corporate principles. The corporate approach has impacted on the organisation and its staff.

Academic staff have been taught to think analytically and critically about their field of inquiry, but the corporate university often tries to institute the very opposite of freedom of thought and critical inquiry in their staff. In the name of marketing the institution, or committing to institutionally mandated principles, staff may be asked to articulate a corporate rhetoric without critique or question.

Soon the staff become frustrated, angry and perhaps unsure why, because they are are suppressing the source of their frustration – the corporate culture itself.

Universities are not Coca-Cola. Many academic staff believe that universities should have ambitions other than money, something to do with knowledge and ideas and innovation without fear or favour – and they feel betrayed, confused and frustrated when these ideals are subsumed by marketing.

The problems in the higher ed sector are ultimately structural. Australian universities have been struggling to come to terms with a new corporatist higher education landscape. Their responses have often been immature, highly speculative, based on extremely dubious research or a desire to attract a strong ‘rock-star’ academic personality. University administrators need to stop behaving like teenagers standing outside a boy-band’s hotel.

But what about students ?

I’m not suggesting (necessarily) that there will be fewer students who can get a tertiary education. I do think that the students of the future may get their education in different ways, and less of them will be attending a campus somewhere. Hopefully the selection process can become more reflective and nuanced and based on better information.

Some types of students – those that need face-to-face but can’t afford it – will be the real losers. Maybe the government can provide scholarships for those students (although in the prevailing climate its hard to see it).

Is it lights out for brick-and-mortar universities?

Not yet. But I don’t see them staying on without serious change, and I’m not convinced the current generation of university administrators are fit to task.

Jenny Weight
English consultant and graphic novelist
Since leaving the higher education sector I’ve been focussed on thinking about education more holistically – I’m particularly interested in the interface between education and media, but I want to understand better how we can bring our traditional educational institutions to embrace the possibilities that the network and media are opening up. We need to reinvent education to suit the nature of our working lives, and our need to engage in routine lifelong learning. I use my research and writing skills to explore these issues. I consult on education issues and assist postgraduate students with their theses.

As an artist, my new project is Mayor, a graphic novel set in thirteenth century Spain. You can find out more about these activities in my blog: geniwate.com.