AUSTRALIA: Higher education in 2029

What will Australian universities look like in 20 years? I was asked this question recently after giving a keynote address at a conference where I outlined the federal government's agenda for higher education.

It's a difficult question to answer. Twenty years from now, in 2029, I'll be in my mid-60s and still working, thanks to changes to Australian superannuation laws. My children, now entering their teens, will be in their 30s. That's hard to imagine.

It's even harder to imagine less certain things than ageing, including the developments in higher education we might have experienced. But I think there are at least three likely developments: improved access to university and, as a result, a very diverse student body, better university teaching and greater institutional differentiation between universities.

I'd estimate that in 20 years, Australian universities will be further along the continuum of access which ranges from elite, through mass, to universal.

This will mean less emphasis on traditional meritocratic achievement which in turn is largely based on scholastic achievement at high school.

In 2029, there will be greater emphasis on selection that allows equality of opportunity - alternative entry schemes, aptitude tests, compensatory programmes, and the like - that either supplement, or in some cases, replace the traditional means.

We are likely to see a greater openness to university entry in 20 years so the class elitism still operating in relation to access becomes a feature of the past, just as the relatively recent and quaint practice of banning women from university has become obsolete and ever so slightly embarrassing.

With greater access will, of course, come more students. Universities will be bigger: they will have more students and more staff and both groups will come from a wider range of backgrounds than is the case today.

In the case of students, we will have more students in 2029 than we do in 2009 and the student population will constitute different proportions of classes - or what we in Australia call socio-economic status backgrounds. In 2009, the population is divided, via a neat postcode classification method, into 25% high SES background, 50% medium SES and 25% low SES.

The method for calculating SES will have improved significantly in 2029 and include some measure of personal circumstances such as parental occupation and/or education levels and other variables. A higher proportion of the university student body will come from low SESs in 2029 than is the case today.

In 2009, low SES student representation in higher education has stalled at 15% where it has been for at least 15 years. This is despite a wider culture where the idea of giving people 'a go', or a chance in life, is well accepted.

It is also despite the expansion in participation, the provision of financial and other support for low SES students and significant target setting and monitoring of universities' performance in relation to access, participation and success for students from low SES backgrounds.

In 2029, things will be different because, in addition to setting targets to significantly grow the sector, the federal government has already specified growth of this group from 15% to 20% by 2020 and will tie university funding to targets in this area.

Even with a change of government, it will be difficult to reverse movement in this area, although growth can be arrested, to some extent, with more conservative federal policies. Still, I'd suggest that in 20 years, the student population will still be skewed toward those from medium and high socio-economic backgrounds, although less so than at present.

Student diversity will also be evident in terms of the pathways taken into university. Schools will continue to provide the bulk of students, particularly for the more traditional universities, but increasing numbers will come through other paths. These will include vocational education and training with refined articulation and credit transfer arrangements, and through creative and innovative arrangements with industry and workplaces.

Mature-age students will, therefore, make up a larger portion of the higher education landscape than they do today. Similarly, the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students - currently around 1.3% - will be greater and closer to a proportion that represents the wider indigenous population.

There will be more part-time students as the blending of work and study, already evident with full time students, increasingly becomes part of formal study. Work-integrated-learning, internships; community placements and the like will be remarkable only if they do not feature in a course and this significant shift will be driven by employers, who will have a greater role in funding higher education and, therefore, in shaping courses and influencing student learning outcomes.

The cost burden of higher education will also continue to shift away from government and toward students and their families so that this burden might be equally shared between industry, individuals and government.

We will see no let-up in the vocational orientation and focus of university study in 2029. Student mobility in and out of formal study and in and out of courses will be the norm and, therefore, new ways to determine university performance beyond traditional notions of retention will have been developed.

In the case of staff, we will see greater diversity in 2029. We are already seeing a breaking down of the traditional notion that an academic would normally follow the 'honours + PhD' education route before taking up employment in a university.

While many academics have PhDs, many do not. Professional doctorates are increasingly acceptable, as is 'equivalence' to a PhD - significant publishing, industry experience, research experience and so on. So, too, academics without a doctorate or its equivalent are increasingly a part of the Australian higher education landscape. They have tended to be focused at the lower levels but increasing numbers are being promoted on teaching, leadership and /or their contribution to administration.

I predict this trend will continue as the ageing academic workforce moves into retirement and the shortage of academics becomes critical. One challenge - for some of the elite universities in particular who tend to cling to tradition with an iron grip - will be to treat these staff as at least equal to traditionally qualified academics. I'd like to see that.

Staff diversity will also continue as a result of globalisation and the increased mobility of appropriately qualified academics. We are already seeing increased cultural diversity in staff in some discipline areas with critical shortages.

While a smaller proportion of academics will have PhDs in 2029, more will have teaching qualifications (and hallelujah to the latter). The professionalisation of university teaching will continue to increase over the next 20 years so that by 2029, most lecturers will have some form of training and certification as teachers.

The collusion in agreeing with the nonsensical argument that a PhD or industry expertise prepares one to teach at university will have ceased, or at the very least, subsided in influence. In 2029, university teaching will be taken seriously.

The challenges associated with teaching students from a very broad range of backgrounds with varied university preparedness, and teaching across geographically diverse locations using leading-edge technology will be recognised.

Teaching will have a high status, it will be appropriately rewarded and those who need help to improve will be routinely provided with the necessary support and development. (OK, I know, the last paragraph is fanciful, but let's hope that I'm right.)

Partly because of the expansion in size of the sector and partly due to the move from mass education toward universal, there will be greater differentiation between universities. Institutional missions will be more prominent and universities will work toward them more explicitly.

For example, the Group of Eight universities - the traditional, 'sandstone' group - are likely to be highly, if not exclusively, focused on postgraduate education 20 years from now. They are already keen to position themselves this way and to use this positioning to maintain perceptions of exclusivity that helps them continue to attract their target market of those from high SES backgrounds.

Of course, there will be a difficult balancing act for the Go8s as they are part of the egalitarianism in the wider Australian culture, one where universities have to be at least seen to be trying to make things better for those from lower SES backgrounds.

Other university groupings such as the Australian Technology Network will become more prominent as the benefits of collaboration for negotiating with government, for marketing and so on become more necessary. The largest group of universities - the unaligned - may yet become a distinct group for these reasons.

Increased institutional diversity will have implications for curriculum and teaching that will blur many existing boundaries. These include those between formal study and paid work, as well as between tertiary sectors (VET and higher education), disciplines, and study modes including on and off-campus and on and off-shore.

Twenty years ago, we could not have imagined many of the features we see today in Australian higher education: more than a third of the population with bachelor qualifications or above, an Australian student population comprising 25% international students, VET colleges offering bachelor degrees, the central role of technology in teaching and learning, and many other features we now accept as an integral part of the sector's landscape.

Perhaps the predictions I have made are pedestrian and we will surpass them, perhaps some will not come to be. What is certain is that the sector will not stand still and that the 20 years between now and 2029 will be characterised by significant change.

* Professor Marcia Devlin holds the inaugural chair of higher education research at Deakin University in Melbourne.

From Maree Conway*

Nowhere in this article is there a reference to the majority of staff in institutions - the professional staff - and how their roles and functions may change over the next 20 years. By then, I hope, we will have 'university staff' as the accepted terminology so there will be no more nonsensical conversations about 'academic' and 'general' staff, and who runs universities.

Second, the expectations of staff in 20 years regarding work and career are likely to be very different to what we have today. The culture of universities and institutions may be very different as a result.

Third, technological developments will continue to have an impact on how learning and services are delivered. It is possible that universities may not exist in the monolith forms we see today and none of the current groupings may exist.

Finally, no one should ever attempt to predict the future because you can end up with egg on your face (didn't Bill Gates tell us 64MB of RAM should be enough for anyone?).

What we can do is be fanciful, imagine and explore our ideas about the future, informed by our understanding of the impact of the trends we see today into the future, and then think about how we want to respond.

We need to build time into our strategy processes where we seek to understand and explore our possible futures, for there is always more than one - the future is complex and uncertain and we should not pretend otherwise.

More time on strategic thinking, less on predictions please.

* Maree Conway runs Thinking Futures, an Australian collaborative consulting practice that aims to "help people think long-term".

From Giles Pickford

Maree Conway is right in her comment on Professor Marcia Devlin's article: the energy and creativity of professional staff are vital to the university. Thirty years ago, they used to be called the menial staff, then the downstairs staff, then the general staff, and now the most demeaning of all names, the non-academic staff - defined by what they are not.

This is spite of the fact that most of them have very good degrees and are only different from their colleagues in the university because they chose to administer the place instead of teach in it.

There is an argument running out there that we should not be called professional staff because that implies that the academic staff are not professional. This is a classic example of the Fallacy of the Undistributed Middle and an illustration of the failure of some people to think clearly.

An academic does not cease to be professional just because a colleague who does not teach becomes professional. Please let us start working together and get rid of the old feudal relationship.

Giles Pickford
Retired university administrator

Professor Marcia Devlin replies:

Having started my career in the higher education sector as a professional staff member, and as a current member of the Association of Tertiary Education Management that Maree Conway and Giles Pickford contribute to leading, I agree with Maree and Giles in their comments in the last two editions of University World News that the distinction between different staff in universities is nonsense.

The article I wrote was commissioned by the editor and I was not asked to write about professional staff (nor about many other aspects of universities of the future, including management, leadership, governance, etc).

I could only write about my areas of expertise, which are limited. Perhaps we might see a series of these articles from experts in different areas?

* Professor Devlin holds the inaugural chair of higher education research at Deakin University in Melbourne.

From Professor Gavin Sanderson:
Interesting read and brave of you Professor Devlin but this article fails to contextualise how Australian universities will have responded to some other likely and significant developments in 20 years. For example, global resource depletion and its impact on mobility as well as life at home, plus continuing changes in the geopolitical landscape, the effects of global warming, and the death of academe at the hand of managerialism.

Forgive my pessimism. I'm actually a happy camper. And Maree, if I had Bill Gates's fortune, I could deal daily with egg on my face. I'd insist on free range eggs though.

* Associate Professor Gavin Sanderson teaches at the University of South Australia.