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Universities must meet learning needs of consumers

Illustration: Eric Lobbecke

Illustration: Eric Lobbecke


The Australian

April 25, 2018

As Robert Griew argues ("What went wrong? And where do we go now?", The Australian, April 11), any review of the higher education system must go beyond the internal academic beltway and address the needs of its actual consumers - students, parents and employers - if it is to find new ways forward successfully. The crisis is not only about the level of funding, it's also about how best to use that funding.

Moreover, discussion should focus not only on what current students have to say about what they need from a university experience but also look at other age groups in need of further education and alternative ways of providing it.

A comprehensive student survey is necessary to confirm what we are being told anecdotally: a disturbing picture of chaotic course organisation, undemanding content and inadequate teaching and assessment standards.

We hear stories from students (across several universities) about lecturers having poor English and inadequate teaching skills; others who turn up late for class; about labs being held before the necessary content has been covered; group assignments giving the same mark to students who contribute nothing.

Many essays and assignments are not returned, a result of poorly paid graduate students having little time or incentive to provide feedback. Others complain that the same course content is covered in third year as in first year but with different course titles, indicating lack of overall degree co-ordination.

So-called "breadth" subjects include a whole term on things such as music therapy, chosen as an easy option. Several deplore the cost-cutting trend towards "lectorials" - a one-hour lecture followed by one hour of "class interaction" with up to 200 students vying to ask questions. Others report being given a learning task one day before a test on it is held, with no prior lectures, readings or tutorials on the topic tested; of complaints being received with a shrug.

One student reports the degree he has been working towards for three years still has no accreditation and was described by a visiting lecturer as "ratshit" and not qualifying them for anything.

They wonder why they are paying HECS fees (retitled, ironically, HELP fees), especially when (as one reports) they are told by a three-hour lab supervisor that she is going home sick after the first hour and the rest of the session is to be seen as "self-learning".

Students are, of course, resourceful. They dodge fellow students with poor English when it comes to group assignments; they split up test questions, Google the answers and share them before the test; they go online to find better designed and more clearly explained course content. Self-learning seems to be the name of the game, so why incur burdensome fee debts in the first place?

And all of this makes a mockery of the much-vaunted "university experience", a time of "rich multicultural interaction" and "stimulating ideas" on a campus "teeming with intelligent fellow learners".

Several students deplore the cost-cutting trend towards 'lectorials'.

Several students deplore the cost-cutting trend towards 'lectorials'.

Many young people spend minimal time on campus, having to work part time and travel long distances. Chances to get to know fellow students are reduced by the variety and short length of courses offered. Larger non-English language groups keep to themselves and there is little social interaction. Unless students are in a residential college, university life is a lonely experience and few have time to belong to university clubs.

Any review of higher education should check the reliability of such anecdotal evidence; examine the actual experience of students and how they think that learning experience could be improved, though it might mean shifting funds into quality teaching rather than new buildings, expensive public relations cam?paigns and research laboratories.

But there is another demographic that should be included in any such review: those already qualified or trained, who have years of work experience and on-the-job learning but whose jobs are being disrupted by technological and social change.

They may have a degree already but are in need of retraining, re-skilling, upgrading and even shifting sideways to new areas of work. And many will need more than old-fashioned TAFE training; they will need high-quality targeted courses, reinvented career pathways and lifelong learning. This is a new challenge for the traditional university model.

In Australia there are 9.6 million people aged between 25 and 54, and 6.4 million aged between 50 and 75, most of them still working or needing to work to sustain a living in the second half of a longer life span, but whose age often leads to discrimination when it comes to job applications, promotion and job training programs.

What is the tertiary education system planning to do about them? Not much, it seems. Because the education paradigm - as preparation for a lifetime job - while still dominating thinking, is outdated. The accepted process of enrolling full time, full year, in a three-year degree program (un?der?graduate or postgraduate) is totally unsuited to the life needs of these older workers. They have family responsibilities, will want to stay in paid work while reinventing themselves by upgrading their skills or embarking on new learning programs. This growing potential student population would be a plus for universities if only they would break through the current paradigm.

More flexible bespoke courses and "stackable" degrees, part-time, part-year programs, simultaneous study while working in course-relevant areas, being taught by experienced colleagues (such as businesspeople, accountants, nurses, teachers, social workers, architects, engineers and lawyers) rather than by unworldly academics out of touch with the real needs of a rapidly changing workplace will be required if we are not to see large numbers of employees with valuable experience put on the scrapheap simply because the system fails to redesign programs to build on their life experience.

With longer life expectancy, most will have to continue earning an income into their later years, and relearning will be a key to their sustainability and social stability.

Griew's report for the Nous Group quite rightly challenges the status quo and the failure of universities (and TAFE) to directly face the challenges of a future where lifelong learning, regularly upgrading skills, shifting to new areas and reinventing how we work will be the norm, not the exception. The potential pool of students is not confined to the young or to full-fee-paying overseas students.

Businesses, employers, start-ups will be demanding a much more agile response to the learning needs of their employees. And if the tertiary sector fails to respond in more learner-friendly ways, they will likely take on the skills-upgrading tasks themselves, as some are beginning to do. Then the funding issues become a whole new battleground.

Don and Patricia Edgar are co-authors of PEAK: Reinventing Middle Age (Text, 2017).