It’s now the start of the third month of 2014 and the start of a new academic year and here are some thoughts to kick it off.
In January I visited Arizona State University (ASU) and the University of Arizona. Both institutions are ‘Land Grant’ universities which means they were established primarily to benefit their communities. ASU is widely recognised as a leader in strategy, information management and improving retention outcomes for its students. ASU has a very similar student demographic to CSU and has a very sophisticated system for identifying students who may be at risk based on their academic performance. It transpired that one of their key initiatives to improve retention has been to build residences and work on community formation – both themes which have been important to us at CSU. ASU also has a commitment to achieve carbon neutrality and it was interesting to see solar panels everywhere – including covering the car parks and as shade structures around the campus in Tempe.
University of Arizona has a Native Nations Institute and, through its College of Law, an Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program (IPLP). Professor Miriam Jorgensen from the Native Nations Institute has been involved with CSU and other Australian universities on a collaborative research project to explore nation building for Indigenous Australian communities. Several of our staff and members of the Wiradjuri nation had visited Arizona in 2013 to attend the IPLP. The visit was a very interesting experience; there are significant differences between the context for American Indian communities in the US and Indigenous communities here but there are also strong parallels. In particular, they have focussed on establishing good governance structures and practices in communities to assist community and economic development.
What was really refreshing about both institutions was that they were genuine in thinking first about what their communities need and as a distant second about how this might play out in terms of esteem through global rankings. As far as I could tell, this applied at all levels and was a significant change to the level of perpetual angst over rankings we seem to have in Australia. I hope we will be able to continue the relationship with both universities.
Australian Federal Government Priorities
In the next few weeks we expect to get some information about the outcomes of the Federal Government’s Commission of Audit and Review of the Demand Driven System. Needless to say, the whole sector is hanging on this because the impacts could be anything from negligible through to significant. The Federal Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, addressed Vice-Chancellors at a dinner last week but it has to be said we ended up much better informed about the Minister’s views on the values of higher education (and the contribution of Sir Robert Menzies to it) than on any future policy directions. Sadly, the Minister did confirm the Government’s commitment to imposing the efficiency dividend on the sector which was announced by the previous Labor government. When Labor announced it, the Coalition condemned it and bizarrely now that the Coalition is enforcing it in government, Labor is opposing it. Go figure.
O Week and Start of Academic Year
Last week, we also held O Week events and commencement celebrations on our campuses. I was able to take part in the ceremony in Bathurst and in a welcome to students living in Residences. In addition to new and replacement capacity in Wagga Wagga and Orange, there has been very significant refurbishment of residences on the Bathurst campus. A very strong theme for us has been the value of residences in helping students to grow socially and succeed at their studies (this is similar to the experience at Arizona State University). We know that it is more difficult to create a good community in a poor environment and we are hoping that the investment in facilities is going to pay off in better outcomes for students. However, there is also the need for strong support mechanisms and with Paul Dowler and Ken Dillon I took part in the training sessions for the Resident Assistants (RAs) in the second week of February. I have done this each year since I took on the VC’s role and I have thoroughly enjoyed it on every occasion. They are a great bunch of very motivated people and it is always great to get a student’s eye view of the organisation.
Universities Australia Conference and MOOCs
As mentioned earlier, last week we had the Universities Australia Conference – at which I once again tried my hand at live tweeting and also ran a panel session on MOOCs. The MOOCs discussion was an interesting exercise; as participants I had Professor Jane den Hollander, Vice-Chancellor at Deakin University, Professor Gregor Kennedy from the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at Melbourne University, Sally-Ann Williams from Google and Professor George Siemens, now at University of Texas but who started the whole MOOC thing at Athabasca University along with Stephen Downes. I was very pleased to meet George personally for the first time. I encouraged pre-discussion via our new Blackboard Course Site and also via Twitter.
In the discussion at the conference itself, it was plain that much of the hype that has been attached to the ‘MOOC’ label was a symptom of the wider change that is happening in higher education. In particular, the internet and broadband connectivity has made it easier to consume information for all learners and easier to deliver education for all providers – everyone is a publisher now. It is not a new theme but this does challenge us to focus on what distinctive value we can offer as universities because no-one now needs us merely to access information. It is also clear that universities have embraced technology and are making dramatic changes in the way they deliver courses. However, for many they are not yet skillfully using technology to reduce workload for both students and staff and we will need to solve that if we are to thrive into the future. One point that should not be overlooked is that MOOCs have attracted those who are learning purely for interest and the love of it. It is pretty hard to be critical of something that attracted most of us to work in higher education in the first place. However, there was a consensus that perhaps it was time to ditch the term and get back to talking about education more generally.
Finally, it’s worth saying something about themes that emerged in the online pre-discussion but less so at the conference. Some of my twitter correspondents mused on the cultural imperialism aspects of MOOCs. Is there the risk that our intellectual life will become homogenised – and Americanised – as much as our suburbs have? In one of his movies, Wim Wenders said “the Yanks have colonised our subconscious”. There is now a global interest in MOOCs from developing countries but we should also be interested in this in smaller countries in the developed world. That is, we should if we value our cultural identity. Another very interesting point raised in the online conversation was the relationship between the use of technology to facilitate teaching and casualisation in higher education. Casualisation was almost unmentioned at the conference and yet it is a topic of intense concern to staff, both for that section of the casual workforce looking for a permanent position and for existing staff who are managing the workload associated with managing teams of casuals.
Student Demand and Challenges for 2014
We are still counting the enrolments for the first session of 2014. Indications at this stage are that we will meet our budget target for load, which is good. However, it seems plain from State and National data that the demand driven system is topping out and student demand is plateauing. It is also plain that all universities are getting very much more competitive for students and that students are recognising they have more power and more choice. On top of this, the ease with which distance education can be delivered via the internet means that there are many more players entering the market. So, a lot more choice for students but no university can afford to be complacent. We need to ensure we have courses that are relevant, engaging, that teach students well and deliver graduates who are highly employable as well as being well-grounded, decent human beings. We also need to provide a great student experience and ensure that all interactions with the university work smoothly. So, not much to ask for but this is what our Strategy sets out for us to do over the next two years. 2014, then, is a year of delivering on our strategy. Some of this is going to be exciting and innovative, but much of it will be unglamorous with a fair bit of graft. To use the words from our Strategy though, we need to have the gumption and the soul to tackle the task.