Dan O'Heirity

Australian Educational Reforms Will Change Universities Forever

The CCP virus has, in short, thrown the Australian Higher Education sector into chaos as Australian universities cannot survive without their international students, many of whom have, so we are told, not enrolled in 2020 due to travel restrictions. I have it in mind to find figures for the actual number of international students who have not enrolled in Australian because I suspect that we are being fed false information. One reason for making this claim is that virtually every university in Australia has transitioned to offering all of its units of study online in both Trimesters 1 and 2 and so there is a question concerning how many of the students who could not travel have not availed themselves of the opportunity to continue their studies online. I mention this fact because universities would have us believe that they are utterly bereft of international students resulting in losses of billions of dollars over the next 3-5 years. I remain unconvinced and believe that a substantial number of international students have in fact enrolled online. piece of research for another day.

There has been fallout from the debacle that is the current situation with Australian universities. The short story, which I have covered in some detail in a previous post, is that the Australian government is seeking to bring in reforms that will set the price for units of student in relation to the likelihood of graduates gaining employment in sectors that will drive economic growth in Australia. So, the cost per unit for a nursing degree or a teaching degree has been reduced whilst the cost per unit for a humanities course has been increased to the point where a humanities student who took only humanities units could be paying 116% more for their qualification. I would confess that I was dumbfounded when I first read this story about the governments proposed changes to Higher Education in Australia because it seemed to me that the government was seeking, almost overnight, to fundamentally change the mission and purpose of Australian universities be defining them as institutions for skills training and as nothing more. That point is arguable but it can be made.

Employers Do Value Humanities Students for Their Transferrable Skills

I subscribe to and donate to an Australian news site, “The Conversation” where the articles, which are all written by academics, are made freely available. Hence the donation. I support the site as one way to ensure quality news reporting continues in Australia. Anyway, the site’s modus operandi is to generate researched stories in quick response to news stories that are emerging. The site produced a story in double quick time on the government’s proposed changes to the Australian Higher Education system. There was a follow up story a couple of days later calling into question the wisdom of doubling the price for a humanities degree when the humanities teach students knowledge and skills – broadly referred to as graduate outcomes – that are valued by employers. The story reports that a study by a “valued industry body, Deloitte Access Economics, reported in 2018 that humanities and communications graduates delivered 30 technical skills hugely sought-after by employers.” Having visited the Deloitte website I have discovered a second report, “Soft Skills for Business Success – Building Australia’s Future.”

This argument adds to the argument from my previous post which was that long term employment figures across the various disciplines taught at universities shows that humanity graduates are employed at just about the same rate as graduates from other more practically focussed disciplines. We can now say that not only are the long term employment rates very good. Even more so, employers are actively seeking out the skill sets that these graduates would bring to the workplace. This fact raises an interesting question. Whilst the government seems to be trying to drive students into science, mathematics, nursing and teaching, to give but a few examples, wouldn’t it make sense of graduates in these disciplines to take units from the more generalist degrees in order to develop the transferrable knowledge and skills that employers are seeking. However , the problem is that the government has massively increased the cost of taking a unit of study from one of the more generalist degrees.

The Idea of the University is That It is More Than a Place For Teaching Knowledge and Skills

When I read the story about the proposed changes to the Australian higher education sector, my mind immediately went to the role and purpose of a university in society with that purpose being one beyond teaching students knowledge and helping them to develop transferrable skills so that they might gain employment. One might look for example to John Henry Newman’s work on “The Idea of the University” published I think in 1852. For those who do not wish to engage in what is a fairly lengthy set of lectures there is an interesting article on “The Idea of the University” published in The Guardian around 10 years ago at a time when UK universities faced “an estimated £4.2bn in spending cuts and increasing pressure to become more “market driven”.“ Sound familiar? It should because the situation is roughly the same in Australia today with universities finding themselves in severe financial trouble and the government looking to a utilitarian view of universities to ensure that students graduate and contribute to economic growth in Australia.

From the article, “Whatever the feasibility of Newman’s concept, it gives rise to a possible definition of the soul of the university [as] the mark left on the alumnus’s mind, which stays with them all their lives … the university has a greater role than just doling out qualifications – that of shaping the whole individual.” Arguably Newman’s ideal was still alive and kicking in the 1960’s in the “Robbins Report” published in the UK. The report states that in addition to teaching skills, “universities must also promote the ‘general powers of the mind’, to produce ‘not mere specialists but rather cultivated men and women’.” I shall get to plurality and to the cultural diversity that characterises our universities and societies in just one moment. For now let me say that both domestic and international students are quite capable of thriving in a university that seeks to “shape the whole individual”. The challenge is not do with students’ capacities in this respect but with the fact that the conditions for character cultivation / the locus within which the character would be developed has changed fundamentally since Newman’s time.

Cultural Diversity Represents Both Opportunity and Challenge in the Post-modern University

In short, utilitarianism has increasingly held sway at our universities and post-modernism / relativism / pluralism have substantively changed the conditions within might character cultivation would occur. In short, Newman had God and a single underlying truth and order to it all. Not so today with multiple truths, multiple faiths, multiple purposes and so on. This fact obviously raises the question of just what sort of character one would be trying to cultivate. For example, would a university try to cultivate a character in the context of acknowledging the multitude of world faiths and secular philosophies that would have something to say on the matter. If so, what exactly would character cultivation look like given the seemingly conflicting truths and values as between the different world’s religions. On the other hand, perhaps religious questions could be avoided altogether in favour of, for example, focussing on developing students into sensitive, empathetic and articulate global citizens deeply appreciative of the diversity and difference that defines our lives.

The point here was not to come up with answers to these questions but to suggest that the questions themselves are important. They are important in and of themselves – it should matter to universities what sorts of graduates they are sending out into the world – but they are important too in terms of challenging the increasingly dominant utilitarian discourse that is shaping our universities into the future. Returning to the objectives of higher education as set out in the Robbins Report, “Last came ‘the transmission of a common culture and common standards of citizenship’. This remains a political preoccupation today, as ‘social cohesion’, though it was easier in the 1960s to assume that Britain did have a common culture and that everyone knew what it was.” The same point holds true for Australia and it is this fact of not being able to assume a common culture that everyone agrees upon that goes to the heart of the question of how best to develop graduates ready to take their place in a postmodern, pluralistic world with relative truths and relative values.

First Published June 22nd, 2020

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