In The Australian Idea of a University, Glyn Davis leads us briefly through the development of the Australian university sector since the establishment of the University of Sydney in 1850. He describes the eventual establishment of similar institutions across the nation, all modelled upon the same Metropolitan University template: a city-based campus, focused on educating local students into the professions, tied to the life of the surrounding town.
Davis outlines various attempted alterations to this model, that were initiated over the last ~ 150 years, but ultimately concludes that Australian universities remain effectively homogenous: method and content of offerings is essentially consistent across all institutions. This homogeneity was formally reinforced in 1987 when John Dawkins as Minister for Employment, Education and Training, created the Unified National System, compelling all institutions to conform. University status was afforded to a far wider array of educational institutions, university places and thus enrolments increased, though sector homogeneity remained.
But are Dawkins’ reforms of some thirty years ago still relevant?
Dawkins himself recently declared that it is time for us to move beyond the paradigm of unification that he established, stating in the Australian Financial Review in September 2016 that his reforms are ‘completely out of date’. Davis proffered four initiatives that might be the key to engendering diversity (and thus longevity/sustainability) within our stagnant tertiary education sector; stagnant because ‘the university system has experienced little structural change for some decades’:
- establish post-school education as a single sector, encompassing a combination of institutional types;
- support this sector with funding that addresses the actual costs of delivering particular courses; to encourage the development of specialist institutions rather than ‘cookie-cut’ institutions, where the same vast array of ‘cheap’ courses must be offered to subsidise the conduct of more expensive courses such as Engineering and Medicine;
- establish teaching-only institutions that can specialise as desired without tying them to the existing definition of a University that requires research to be conducted; and
- undertake a commitment to system design, to develop then enforce, heterogeneity, so that institutional diversity is maintained.
Davis clearly outlined the reasons why public institutional homogeneity occurred and presented initiatives to address the contemporaneously stagnant status quo.
But, amidst this inaction, private (or corporate) education providers are loitering with intent.
Is our sector so politically constraining that rejuvenation as described by Davis is not possible within timeframes adequate to counter the march of private tertiary providers?
Are we on the cusp of radical change for the funding and thus structure of tertiary education in Australia?
Numerous multinational corporations are establishing tertiary education campuses to train professionals for their industries. McDonald’s has been doing it for decades with their Hamburger University, Infosys has run one of the world’s largest corporate universities in India for more than fifteen years, and Veolia continues to expand its global network of campuses. Veolia’s campuses provide ‘qualifying training courses and develop partnerships with universities and state agencies’ and they could soon be coming to Australia.
Corporate educational offerings might typically begin with the provision of teaching support into existing subjects or courses before evolving into the ‘standalone’ provision of such material. The obvious extension of this model, as evidenced by the global proliferation of corporate campuses, is that the corporate provider then starts offering the entire degree program, producing dedicated graduates exactly aligned with their workforce requirements.
What will this mean for publicly funded universities?
Will they continue to operate in their current manner, offering a unified consistent ‘product’; will they evolve in a manner consistent with some or all of Davis’ postulations or will they decline, as innovative, fast-moving corporate education providers introduce discipline-specific tertiary training that directly addresses contemporary and future workforce requirements?
As Davis concludes: ‘with the right policy settings, Australia can trade a single history for diversity, one path for many’.
The question is: are we willing to do so in a timely enough manner to counter the rise of corporate higher education providers?
Adrian McCallum served for twenty years across the Australian Defence Forces and now teaches Engineering at University of the Sunshine Coast. He is passionate about the structure and leadership of Australia’s Higher Education sector.