Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Australian Education 2016 - Looking Back

Note to Reader:This provocative article by Ndarala professional Dr Sandra Welsman (Frontiers Insight) explores changes in Australian education, especially tertiary education, looking back from the perspective of 2016.

Sandra paints a very changed world in which today's institutional structures and approaches have been replaced by a changing multiplicity of new forms and approaches.

The article first appeared the The Australian's Higher Education section 11 January 2006 and is reproduced with Sandra'a approval. Sandra can be contacted by emailing


For Australian higher education, recent decades have been tense. Some institutions have struggled and faded. Others, belying the view that universities endure because they adjust traditions with caution, have inventively flourished through financial squeezes.

The next 10 years will see more assertive change worldwide.

In this scenario, key drivers are, as ever, those of the marketplace: demographics, demand shifts based on need, cost and reward, and competitive new suppliers. Government regulation might hold back the market but not for long. Institutions and individuals cannot wait; they need to presciently, creatively and actively chart their own ways ahead.

2016: The Scene Looking Back

It is now 2016, and new knowledge production, its testing and trade are vital but routine socioeconomic activities. Special protections fell away from university research and teaching as markets turned from seller to buyer-driven. A stunning diversity of education and education providers are now recognised against robust globally calibrated measures.

To advance their careers, younger Australians in 2016 need one good qualification plus edgy knowhow gained from challenging work responsibilities in business, government and service professions. Demand for big, formal degrees declined noticeably from 2008 in favour of tailored credentials earned via workplace tuition. In contrast to skilled trades and personal services, more professional work in law and accounting is outsourced to clever, cost-efficient centres overseas. Lead Australian firms excel in thinking and action across disciplines, cultures, markets.

Post-school education in 2016 is on-call, practical and rewarding intellectually, emotionally and materially. Before committing to a formal university or institute degree, including some trades, consumers weigh up whether whole-of-life returns will exceed fees, costs and loss of at-work earning and learning. Some, young or older, are still investing in education per se, but the 1990s push for lifelong learning has lost traction. Research degrees are the exception, with many PhD completers now distinctly middle aged.

Schools and Universities Merge

Upper school education is fast merging into universities and institutes. This started with school-based vocational education and training; then, in 2005, the notion of general-studies colleges appeared. Mimicking the US paths of decades gone by, governments funded school finishers to take a liberal mix of subjects at regional or suburban universities before earning entry to select institutions for professional courses.

Clashes with market realities were clear by 2010. Young adults, impatient with school dependency, rejecting more years of "just learning", headed to flexible employers anxious for their services. University enrolments dropped; creative work-based edu-ventures emerged.
In retrieval mode, clever regionals negotiated with school systems to transfer final school years into their degrees, delivered from 2010 via mini-campus networks.

The Asian Challenge

Asian institutions have grown fast and purposefully in quantity and quality and now serve expanding local numbers. Most Asian students, wary of being stereotyped as substandard on their English, now optimise time, money, learning and university experiences at worldly Asian or localised arms of well-known US or European Union universities plus a few Australian providers.

Asian student flows into Australia, shaky since 2005, slumped from 2008. Relief among academics about course standards and pressures was offset by widespread financial restructuring.

Africa could be a new client region but world higher education is too hotly competitive for conventional Australian institutions.

Australians Head Overseas

"Born global" high-achiever Australians are enrolling in Asian or US enterprises, over there or at branches here. They will pay for international education that gives them an edge in networking and career. By 2010, our new elite seven universities noticed many bright and young students heading overseas for first degrees (with travel deals keeping family close) rather than spend three years in a "local". Some of the seven now offer "under/postgraduate" fast-tracks but Australia might not recapture this vital cohort of students.

Emergence of Local Diversity

Entrepreneurial education surged from 2007, responding to and shaping marketplaces. Entities of all sizes and histories are inventing new ways (in-class, in-work, in-bed) to supply learning services to students and employers, and pioneering course content to old universities.

By delivering perceptive, intellectual, practical products, innovators won access to public grants and a level playing field. We have new criteria for research, course accreditation, even research training. Whether universities were slowed by their rules or by government regulations is debated in academic journals (few others care as they race to transform).

Thriving universities have worked to focus academic curiosity towards research and teaching outcomes with impact across stakeholder communities. Here, academic freedom is not deployed unthinkingly as a barrier to change nor is collegiate voting used to delay reform. Decision-making takes place after genuine consultation. Leaders have had to change, too. University protocols, rules and benchmarks have improved markedly, with dilution of simple measures such as peer review and publication in little-read journals.

Indeed the personality of academics seems to be evolving, hastened by performance criteria and baby boomers deciding to adapt or retire (some of them revealing entrepreneurship once discouraged by the stricture of disciplines).

As enrolments reduced from 2008, competitive forces revealed the true positioning of the 45 Australia-based universities in local and global marketplaces. The strength and performance of entities, judged against what they promise, are explained in ways intelligible to students, employers and investors worldwide.

To much surprise (and financial distress), innovative competitors stripped business education and "last male bastion" technology courses from unfocused or too feminised universities. Those ossified business school models unable to manage and compete as in the real world suffered more than others.

In 2016 there are 60 universities diversely active in Australia. A minority are public entities. Across all types of enterprise, most academics have chosen contracts that double their teaching. This allows them to focus on excellent course design backed by scholarship.

They are well rewarded for their work. Although equity pressures still protect institutions in regions and outer suburbs, privatisation (tested on three universities in 2009) is a powerful answer to entrenched costs and performance issues.

Respected new-model tertiary institutes emerged and perfected the teaching of adaptable skills and multi-disciplinary thinking for complex, changing workplaces at all qualification levels.

There have been university-college mergers, myriad start-ups and some separations. But the big shock, and the clear start of a new era, was the closure and sale of seven under-used city campuses by a consortium of governments in 2012.

About the Author

Sandra is managing director of Frontiers Insight, a Canberra/Armidale consultancy specialising in the development and application of new analytical techniques in the areas of planning, innovation and program reviews. Sandra's previous positions include founding director Australian Centre for Agriculture and Law at the University of New England, CEO of the ACT Electricity & Water Authority, General Manager Business at the Snowy Mountains Authority as well as various SES positions in the Defence Department. Sandra's qualifications include an honours degree in science as well as a PhD in law and admission as a barrister.

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