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Have we had enough big ideas and where did they come from?

The Australian Universities Accord consultation process called for big ideas into its submissions. It invited diverse thinking from within the sector in Australia and globally. It also invited radical thinking and ideas from other sectors.

The volume and diversity of contributions from the last two sources appears limited in the otherwise impressive listing of contributors. Did we get enough big ideas?

Many submissions to the Accord have been made by current universities and the various advocacy groups they are part of.

They were not unlike the majority of the contributors to the US Congress committee of enquiry into the future of US higher Ed conducted at a similar time and for similar reasons.

They make cases based on an assessment from within current providers of what each of them needs as current educational institutions seeking to more effectively provide learning and knowledge.

It has been an excellent exercise in engaging the sector in the process. But are we looking broadly enough for all of the big ideas we need?

Our current global institutions, the way they operate, and the systems they operate in, are facing systemic challenges. These include the cost structures of our currently ubiquitous research and teaching, campus-based, comprehensive universities becoming unaffordable to both governments and students.

This has resulted in student debt reaching record levels globally. It stands at $1.7tn in the US and is outstripping abilities of graduates to repay it in Australia.

All pointers are towards levels of student contribution rising further, remaining indexed, and being at odds with moves towards more equitable educational access. The same conditions are generating radical reappraisals in some US environments with some borrowing extensively from other sectors.

This debt phenomenon is combined with global employers’ needs of graduates changing more quickly than ever.

This has been further exacerbated and amplified with the double whammy of two black swan events of a global pandemic and disruptive technologies, most recently generative AI.

In this environment, changes in both domestic and international student markets are starting to appear that tell us we might now need more than minor tweaks to the current settings for some of our universities.

Do we also need a quote new type of educational institution and if so, what does it look like?

This was a question posed in a research study by five professorial colleagues at MIT. They produced a recent white paper of a New Educational Institution (NEI) where students graduate in 11 trimesters, professors are 80% teaching active, and take sabbaticals in industry, and all students do a third of their study in workplaces.

The model adopts the widespread recent research demonstrating the limitations of the lecture as a learning method.

It advocates strongly for co-op education and broad-based partnerships with industry and employers. It isn’t much of an extension to see a role for employers in funding value-adding skills-based lifelong learning in a global war for talent.

And while focused initially on engineering and STEM disciplines the NEI model argues for interdisciplinary and integrative practical knowledge particularly in combination with the social sciences and business.

The rather anodyne name of the project – New Educational Institution  – hides an important observation: it is hard to change existing institutions because of their structures, incentives, sunk costs and inertia.

The authors of the white paper focus on starting anew.

A radical model of education such as this is not easy for some current institutions to evolve into. It might prove easier for other new entrants to adopt such a model from a blank canvas.

The future may see a trifurcation of institutional type. Higher Ed institutions may evolve with elite research universities being largely unchanged, many that are in urgent need of change flipping the model to one like that described, and some in the middle and at risk and in gentle, perhaps irrecoverable decline.

The competitive pressures might be greatest between various sources of new entrants and those at risk.

We discussed these various issues, and this big idea together, in the latest episode of the HEDx podcast available here.

A big question in the coming weeks for Australia is how much these issues and this big idea will feature in how our Accord plays out.

Or will the dominance of submissions from the sector, and its groups, mean we all make an Accord to keep things largely as they are?

That might depend on how ambitious we were for change and where we have looked for inspiration for change from.

That might most usefully extend to beyond those currently in the institutions and system that dominate where the submissions have come from. Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose?

First published in Campus Review on 3rd May 2023.
Emeritus Professor Martin Betts, Co-Founder of HEDx
Professor Sanjay Sarma, MIT