The Future of Higher Education in Australia

The Australian Financial Review Higher Education Summit from 27–28 October 2015 provided a platform for robust discussion on the future of the higher education sector in Australia. Topics ranged from funding, policy and deregulation, through to research and innovation, digital disruption and the institutional adaptation required to meet the needs of millennials as students and as productive contributors to the economy and society.

Simon Birmingham

“Modern universities are one of the most powerful mechanisms we have for changing and improving peoples’ lives,” said Professor Ian Jacobs, Vice-Chancellor and President, UNSW.

“At their best, they educate people from all backgrounds to a level that frees them to make an enormous contribution to society through their work and their interactions with others, helping us to produce a stream of new ideas across all areas of human endeavour, and provide a forum for open discussion and debate which influences government and social policy. Through high-quality research, they generate discoveries that will increase our knowledge, and when turned into applications they bring enormous benefits for society including, but not limited to, economic prosperity.”

Michael Stutchbury, Editor in Chief, Australian Financial Review added: “We are at a critical juncture where the government faces a choice of pushing all these reforms that will carry higher education forward, or letting it stagnate.

“The Turnbull government should choose to push on with higher education reforms because it needs universities to be more flexible and innovative. It needs universities to be more competitive with price signals to help them produce the type of graduates that industry demands. Only with this sort of change, will the higher education system be able to fully contribute to the innovation agenda which is shaping as the Turnbull government’s main game. This is a great opportunity for the higher education sector with the new prime minister and his new agenda.”

Professor Jacobs, argued that there was no need for further debate or policy changes for higher education deregulation. “The announcement by the new Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, that the current system will continue into 2016 and will allow space for consultation, provides us with a welcome opportunity for reflection. The debate about deregulation and tuition fees has been focused on the wrong questions, and trying to solve a problem that does not exist. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the current funding model. It’s a model that works well.”

Federal Education Minister, Simon Birmingham added: “Our government aims to build on our already strong higher education sector, to develop one of the best higher education systems in the world.

“Such a system would be characterised by diversity and choice, while underpinned by equity and access. Knowing that we want even more from our higher education institutions, we need to work our policies and mechanisms to achieve that. The question of how it is paid for and by whom must be answered.”

Professor Jacobs reflected on the country’s public higher education investment compared with other advanced nations.

“Australia’s public investment in tertiary education as a share of GDP is amongst the lowest in the OECD,” he said. “And student fee contributions are already amongst the highest. Australia has dropped, from having the sixth highest investment to the second lowest as a share of GDP. In 1995, public investment in tertiary education was 1.2% of GDP. By 2011, it had slipped to 0.7%. During this time, universities have maintained their current position, while at the same time, numbers of students have increased dramatically, nearly doubling over fifteen years.”

Still new in his role as Education Minister and working to overcome tensions from outgoing Minister, Christopher Pyne, Senator Birmingham said, “Higher education is expensive and it needs to be paid for somehow. From the public purse, from the direct beneficiaries of that education, or from a combination of both. I will be consulting with the higher education sector, students, employers, senate colleagues and other colleagues on how we can best find a sustainable basis for taxpayers to best fund a higher education system with fair, equitable access to students”.

Another major theme throughout the Summit was challenges faced by digital disruption. “The information age has transformed knowledge acquisition. Student expectations are rising, and there is ever-greater international competition,” said Professor Jacobs. “Digital technology offers entirely new learning approaches, which will entirely change the educational model.”

TechnologyOne R&D Evangalist, Matt Deshon, shared insights on the expectations of millennials, as higher educators’ primary customers.

“Millennials come from a different place,” he said. “They grew up with technology as digital natives. They are completely comfortable with technology as an enabler but they’re not necessarily technically savvy. Their tolerance of things not working is zero. They have ‘consumer-world’ expectations and want instantaneous results.”

Matt emphaised the importance of providing cloud based services to connect students, staff and stakeholders on mobile devices.

Professor Eric Grimson, Chancellor for Academic Advancement, at MIT spoke about the enormously successful edX MOOC program that they developed in conjunction with Harvard University.

“We are disrupting ourselves in how we deliver and how we assess,” said Professor Grimson. “We have changed the experience both on campus and globally.”

He went on to explain how MIT research has proven the effectiveness of online learning over traditional lecture-based formats. He challenged the audience to disrupt their own institution and consider fundamental changes in their university model.

“Think of a world where the dissemination and acquisition of knowledge is done better by machine than by human – it’s already here,” said Ben Nelson, CEO and Chairman of Minerva, a new elite USA university with an unconventional syllabus and structure. “In the new model where education is basically free, what happens to universities, which are lecture-based? Minerva helps students explore questions for which there is no single correct answer. Where a machine cannot guide the student.”

Minerva focuses on cognitive learning, problem-solving and exploration, as students experience a diversity of cultures by living in up to seven world cities, as a part of their undergraduate degree.

Overall the Summit painted a positive picture of Australia’s place in the world in higher education. The sector’s role in innovation through research was also much discussed, after the new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s appointment just six weeks earlier. The tone and rhetoric of the Summit was one of optimism for the sector in step with the prime minister’s ode to optimism. Higher education in Australia will continue to play a role in shaping our nation’s future through economic drivers, productivity and original thinking to build a smart economy. The size and scale of its role is yet to be seen but its importance was acknowledged through the Australian Financial Review Higher Education 2015 Summit, and continues to be through ongoing public debate.