Education in the Age of Disruption

Education in the Age of Disruption

By the President and Vice-Chancellor of Monash, Professor Margaret Gardner AO
Address to the Melbourne Press Club
8 June 2016

In 2011 Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring opined:

“A disruptive technology, online learning, is at work in higher education, allowing both for-profit and traditional not-for-profit institutions to rethink the entire traditional higher education model. Private universities without national recognition and large endowments are at great financial risk. So are public universities, even prestigious ones …”

Christensen is the father of the notion of disruptive innovation and here he is applying those thoughts to university education. He is not alone.

In 2012 in an article titled “The End of the University as We Know It,” Nathan Harden wrote:

“In fifty years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist. The technology already driving this change is already at work, and nothing can stop it. The future looks like this: Access to college-level education will be free for everyone; the residential college campus will become largely obsolete; tens of thousands of professors will lose their jobs; the bachelor’s degree will become largely irrelevant; and ten years from now Harvard will enroll ten million students.”

This story of technological disruption profoundly changing an industry is familiar to us. Two industries, which have recently experienced the shock of the future, newspapers and music, are often cited as the exemplars of the future of universities.

The Internet and its ability to provide more immediate and extensive ways of accessing content is the principal driver of disruption in this story. It allows aggregation and disaggregation of content as well as dispersion of content to larger groups of people than possible through previous forms of delivery.

This technologically driven increase in access to and customisation of news or music would be an unalloyed good were it not for the impact of these changes on the content producers and the organisations that have paid them for content.

And so we can understand how experience of the impact of the Internet on these content producers, journalists and musicians and their organisations, newspapers and record labels, was extrapolated to the university.

Commentators cast academics as another form of content producer and the university merely the organisation that pays them. When teaching content can be sourced from the ‘star’ professors, distributed to the world via the internet, and then understood by people in their own time and at their own place and pace, they reason, there will be fewer professors needed and they need not be employed in the ivy-covered or stone-coloured walls of a campus.

And so Martin Smith (2014) predicts that in the future:

“Universities will be masters of curation, working as talent agencies. They’ll draw royalties and license fees from the content professors create and curate. In many ways, the role of the best universities will become even more focused on identifying, investing in, and harvesting the returns from great talent.”

How real is this future for universities? What evidence is there of the path to disruption here laid out? Before I turn to these questions, however, I want to outline two other trends affecting universities.


The first is globalisation. Student mobility across countries in search of higher education has never been greater. And Australia is one for whom these changes have been very significant. For much of the last century, universities were attended largely by the citizens of the nation states that housed their campuses. Universities funded by government educating our citizens were the dominant Australian form.

Yet in Australia from the 1980s universities began to enroll fee-paying students from other countries, principally from Southeast Asia. Today education (largely fuelled by higher education) is Australia’s largest service export generating some $18.2 billion (2014) per annum for the economy. In Victoria it is the largest export of the State.

Universities have changed with their changing student population, growing substantially in size, becoming more dependent on fee-paying students, responding to global education markets. Some universities have opened campuses in countries outside Australia, such as Monash in Malaysia, India, and China.

In the course of making the education of students from anywhere in the world and the internationalisation of higher education core to the operations of our universities, other changes have occurred. Universities have spun out or partnered with successful colleges that prepare students for university from English language through foundation studies and diplomas. These businesses have also spread their reach across the world.

Universities in Australia founded IDP, now the largest and must successful public company recruiting students worldwide.

While we can argue that universities, founded in Europe, served an international student population, the scale of what has occurred and is continuing to grow is changing the relationship of universities to the nation-states they have traditionally called home.


The second trend is the massification of higher education. This is the shift to provide higher education to a larger proportion of the population in recognition of the need for higher skills for future employment. In Australia the most recent policy manifestation of this trend was the introduction of the demand driven system with its target of some 40% of the 25-34 year olds in the population having a bachelor’s degree.

The extension of higher education to a significant slice of the population creates different expectations of higher education. And it also has and will increase the size of the higher education sector in our economy and in other economies with similar levels of participation.

In the past 25 years the proportion of men (15-64 years) with a post-school qualification rose from 45% to 61% and for women more rapidly from 34% to 60%. Since 1990 the proportion of men with a bachelor’s degree more than doubled from 9.9% to 24% and for women from 6.8% to 29%.

Australian universities contributed some $25 billion or 1.5% of GDP to our economy, educated 1.3 million students and produced some 300,000 graduates in 2014.

The opportunities of globalisation and massification, while changing universities today, are the fuel for disruption to support large online empires that will challenge the future of campus-based universities. Without these other trends, the possibility of generating revenues sufficient to support a large online challenge to universities becomes less feasible.

So what we can see is that universities, an old institutional form, have changed in the face of globalisation and massification – and the higher education sector has grown as new players have found a new space to work.


And before turning back to the path of digital disruption, let me make one more observation about universities and disruption. Universities are an integral part of every technological disruption we will experience.

By this I refer to the role of universities in research (and in Australia every university is required by law to undertake research). What happens to manufacturing when we can 3D print whole items such as jet engines (as Monash has done)? How does health change when we can target more personally and specifically responses to disease or replace more of our vital body parts and organs? How do our lives change if we are able to harvest, store and distribute energy completely differently than we do today? What else happens when we better understand the neurological processes that govern our cognition or our moods?

Research – the discovery of new knowledge and new solutions – is the ultimate potential disruptor of our world – but also the hope for a better future. Universities have provided the organisational succor for much research. In Australia the majority of our research and development is carried out in our universities. We are 0.3% of the world’s population but some 3.9% of its research output.

Universities are not a passive part of the technological disruptions that transform that world around us – they play an integral part in their creation. And so how will digital disruption affect them and higher education?

What effect has digital disruption had on universities today and what is the likely future path?

All Australian universities have platforms to distribute digital content to their students. And this has changed some subjects and degrees profoundly and has barely touched the delivery of others. In other words an innovation that is making its presence felt in the way we educate but which is still working through the academy.

The future is clear, however. Education will become more flexible, more formative, more personalised. The ‘flipped classroom’ is on its way to becoming more common than the large first year lecture. It uses online content to reduce lecture time, allows more group interaction, building problem solving skills. The online platform for holding content and assessment allows for more formative assessment and more ability to interact on the areas that are most important to improve student motivation and learning.

In other words, the digital disruption and harnessing its possibilities is vital to providing much better teaching and learning in universities in this time of globalization and massification, for here is the promise of better education for our students.

Every university has some MOOCS – they are a way to experiment and to get content out. The large platforms are still experimenting with ways to cut the content they provide for free into modules for which they will charge and credit towards qualifications. Reach is large, completion is low, and integration with recognised qualifications is still low. So while this model is begun to emerge it has not yet expanded quickly.

Most universities have one or more full qualifications that can be taken online. The cost of producing and updating materials and providing for interaction and assessment has made the majority of these less financially viable than on-campus degrees.

Arguably this is because they are still in production terms, a form of batch production. Very large enrolment qualifications offered by a very reputable university would start to change this equation. This situation has not yet emerged in any significant form to date.

So all the apparent paths to digital disruption have been trialed – and universities have participated in all these forms of trial. Yet no trial to date has accelerated in a way that produces the disruption to universities imagined by those who see “ancient institutions in their last days of decadence”.


The path to disruption of universities is neither smooth nor assured – for a number of reasons.

  1. The need for interaction between student and teacher in learning and teaching.

    The student must understand the online content provided in this digital age, and the path to understanding requires more than interaction with other students. It relies on teacher engagement. There is an interaction required for the transformation of information into knowledge.

    This has not yet been able to be fully automated for many fields. It requires tutors to moderate discussions, to provide feedback on assessment. These are interactions that require qualified staff and time for each student – there is no easy mass solution to feedback – although there are methods that are attempting to provide greater automation.

    In other words the personalised path to learning also relies on a series of interactions with qualified persons. And this interaction is subject to overall academic policies and interacts with professional accreditation requirements in many fields – all of which specify the types of academic and in some cases the numbers of them needed to provide surety of understanding by the student.

  2. The requirement for certification of knowledge acquired by the student.

    There are university rules governing the certification of a qualification, there are usually government or legislative requirements about who can certify that a degree has been achieved. And there are often rules about the nature of the learning required which preclude a totally online experience. These rules about certification are also usually embedded in forms of professional accreditation.

  3. The increasing tendency for recognition or certification of the quality of the institution providing the degree.

Almost every nation or state has requirements about which institutions can offer degrees. Australia’s recent experience in vocational education gives a very clear picture of why these rules exist over and above concerns abut what is required to achieve a certain qualification.

The apparently borderless flow of digital content runs into the borders of national regulation as again society is assured that those certified as able to undertake significant professional responsibilities have been certified by institutions on which we can rely.

These three regulatory hurdles are neither minor nor easily dismissed or overcome. As a society we wish to be sure that our bridges and buildings will stand and be safe, that our health services will do no harm and hopefully cure, and so on.

There are many degrees where as a society, as employers, as groups of professionals we require that deep understanding is gained from people who are in a position to teach and to assess that understanding, that it is in a form that will allow the effective practice of the understanding gained and that we can be assured that those who have certified to that knowledge are themselves to be trusted. We make the hurdles high for a very good reason and they are hurdles to the quick undermining or dismantling of universities.

As an institution we rely on the university to provide for and assure us on all three grounds outlined above. This is why universities who responded successfully to globalisation and massification largely dominate the competition for students across the world.

It is possible for a university to dominate more definitively in the future this online space and therefore to build a bigger global presence. And it is within a university or alongside a university that I would expect that this new form would emerge, because they have already internalised the solutions to the regulatory hurdles I outline above.

So I expect that higher education and indeed universities will be the source of their own disruption.

I do not expect it to be the end of venerable institutions, though I do not think the landscape will look the same in ten years. And I can make that prediction because the landscape looks very different now than ten years ago.

It is an opportunity to be seized for the quality of learning and teaching and interaction with students that we wish to provide. It is the possibility of providing better education for more students.

It is a place where a country like Australia, with a high quality university system, could with the right investment and support for experiment and innovation take a bigger place in the future knowledge economy that will dominate our future.

Works Cited

Australian Bureau of Statistics. Education and Work, Australia, May 2015 (summary document), Cat no. 6227.0, Canberra, November 2015.

Australian Bureau of Statistics. Export Income to Australia from International Education Activity in 2014-15, Canberra, November 2015.

Christensen, Clayton M. & Eyring, Henry J. The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011).

Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport & Resources. Victoria's Future Industries: International Education Discussion Paper, (Melbourne: State of Victoria) 2015.

Down, John. Educational Ecologies: Toward a Symbolic-Material Understanding of Discourse, Technology, and Education, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016, p xiii.

Group of Eight Australia. “Future Demand for Higher Education in Australia”,, accessed June 6.

Harden, Nathan. “The End of the University as We Know It”, The American Interest, vol 8, 3, (December 11, 2012).

Smith, Martin. “Are Universities Going the Way of Record Labels?”, The Atlantic, July 7 2014.

Universities Australia. “The Facts”, Keep it Clever, Accessed 6 June 2016.

Zhang, Zuocheng and Tobias, Stephen. “The Rise of China: A Threat or Opportunity for Australian Universities?”, The Conversation, November 10 2015.