IMAGINE a university beyond space and time and you will be thinking like Cardinal Newman in his famous 1850s lectures on the idea of a university. Newman’s idea never really materialised. Modern societies moved further and further away from a pure, acontextual model. Now, with new technologies on the horizon, it is easier to glimpse a university which transcends the local and the immediate.
The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown many universities into crisis, but it was a crisis coming anyway. Today’s institutional leaders might have hoped it would be their successors who inherited the really tough change, but now it is on their own plate.
The Golden Age of universities in the developed world, which started in the 1960s, has been passing for several years now. It really was a Golden Age. Higher education grew by a factor of 6.12 between 1970 and 2013, whereas population multiplied by 1.93 and real GDP by 3.63. Widespread support for this growth came from human capital theory, which saw expenditure on tertiary education as an investment in the economy, and it came from equal opportunity theory which saw the expenditure as essential for social justice. Expenditure on research was justified by a strong belief that the market alone would not lead to sufficient fundamental or pure research on which innovation and the development of technology relies. And as middle classes expanded in developing nations, the international student market took off. We have just been living through boom times in university-land!
But this support, optimism and confidence has been faltering. The earnings premium from a degree has started to decline. Vocational education has suffered dangerously from the expansion of higher education. Inequality within countries has actually worsened with the expansion of their university systems. Employers are saying they need skills and qualities in graduates that universities are not explicitly addressing.
Perhaps most fundamentally of all, costs have been rising faster than revenues, probably because universities cannot scale up in ways that many other organisations can. According to a recent OECD analysis, after accounting for rising student numbers and inflation, average real expenditures per student by higher education institutions in 13 selected OECD countries roughly doubled between 1995 and 2015. This was unsustainable anyway, but is now completely unaffordable as nations rebuild their economies after the pandemic. No one has the money to throw at universities on the scale it has been thrown in the last 60 years.
Technology and ingenuity are the solution. Modes of digital delivery will improve enormously, with extensive use of virtual reality, mixed reality, simulations etcetera. Courses will be designed for digital delivery rather than distorted for it. Learning analytics will personalise learning to the individual student. Personalised learning at scale will be within reach, simultaneously improving learning and reducing per student cost. Machine learning will conduct research at a level of complexity no human team can compete with. The competitive advantage of humans over robots within higher education will be in their creativity and ability to inspire students to learn.
“When we IMAGINE the university of the future, we no longer need to imagine a campus, a lecture theatre or a lab. We imagine how hands and minds are trained and cultivated through the optimal mix of humans and machines.”
The Newton of tomorrow can sit under an apple tree, with her or his digital device, and be at university. As in Lennon’s Imagine, above us is only sky.
Emeritus Professor Stephen Parker is honorary professorial fellow at the Centre for the Study of Higher Edu-cation, University of Melbourne, and Global Lead for Education and Skills at KPMG. He was a legal academic before taking up administrative positions including Dean of Law at Monash University, Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Monash University and then Vice-Chancellor at the University of Canberra. He writes and commentates extensively on education matters in Australia and internationally. He has a podcast series called Talking Tertiary.