Education in the age of disruption

By the President and Vice-Chancellor of Monash, Professor Margaret Gardner AO

Alexander Theatre
Professor Margaret Gardner AO

Address to the Melbourne Press Club 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, the father of the notion of disruptive innovation, is not alone in applying those thoughts to university education. In a 2012 article titled “The End of the University as We Know It,” Nathan Harden predicted that: “In 50 years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4500 colleges and universities now operating  in the United States will have ceased to exist. The technology driving this change is already at work, and nothing can stop it.”

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

The internet is the principal driver of disruption in this story. It allows aggregation and disaggregation of content, as well as its distribution to larger groups of people, more than ever previously possible.

This 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 employ them to provide content.

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 ‘star’ professors and distributed to the world via the internet, their reasoning goes, fewer professors will be needed and they need not be employed  on the grounds of a campus. Martin Smith (2014) predicts that in the future: “Universities will be masters of curation, working as talent agencies. They’ll draw royalties and licence fees from the content professors create and curate.”

How real is this future for universities? What evidence is there of disruption occurring on this scale? To answer this, we must consider two trends affecting universities.

The globalisation of higher education

For much of the past century, universities were attended largely by the citizens of the nation states that housed their campuses. But in recent decades, student mobility between countries has soared.

This transition has been particularly significant for Australia. From the 1980s, Australian universities began to enrol fee-paying students from other countries, principally from Southeast Asia. Today, education – largely fuelled by higher education – is Australia’s largest service export, generating $18.2 billion (2014)  per annum. In Victoria it is the state’s largest export.

Universities have changed with their changing student population, growing 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.

Universities have spun out or partnered with successful colleges that prepare students for university through foundation studies and diplomas. These businesses have also spread their reach across the world. Australian universities founded IDP Education, now the largest and arguably most successful public company recruiting students worldwide.

The scale of what has occurred and is continuing to grow is changing the relationship of universities to the nation-states they traditionally called home.

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 think the landscape will look different in 10 years.

The massification of higher education

The second trend affecting universities is the shift towards providing higher education to a larger proportion of the population. In Australia, the most recent policy manifestation of this trend was the introduction of the demand-driven system with its target of some 40 per cent of the 25 to 34-year-olds in the population having a  bachelor’s degree.

Extending higher education to a wider proportion of the population creates different expectations of universities. It has also increased 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 per cent to 61 per cent, and for women more rapidly from 34 per cent to 60 per cent. Since 1990, the proportion of men with a bachelor’s degree more than doubled from 9.9 per cent to 24 per cent, and for women from  6.8 per cent to 29 per cent.

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

Globalisation and massification, while changing universities today, can also be seen as the fuel for disruption to support large online empires that will challenge the future of campus-based universities. Without these two trends, the possibility of generating revenues sufficient to support a large online challenge to universities becomes  less feasible.

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.

The role of universities in technological disruption

Yet universities are not only affected by technological disruption. Universities are an integral part of every technological disruption we will experience. Research – the discovery of new knowledge and new solutions – is the ultimate potential disruptor, and universities provide the organisational succour for much of it.

Every university in Australia is required by law to undertake research, and universities account for the majority of this country’s research and development. We are 0.3 per cent of the world’s population but some 3.9 per cent of its research output. Universities are not a passive part of the technological disruptions that transform  that world around us – they play a driving role in their creation.

The effects of digital disruption on the future of universities

All Australian universities have platforms to distribute digital content to their students. This has changed some subjects and degrees profoundly while barely touching the delivery of others.

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 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 those areas that are most important to improve student motivation and learning.

In other words, amid the globalisation and massification of higher education, harnessing the possibilities of digital disruption is vital to improving teaching and learning in universities.

Many universities offer MOOCs as a way to experiment with and distribute content. The large platforms tipped to challenge standard universities are still experimenting with ways to cut the content they provide for free into modules for which they can charge and credit towards qualifications. Their reach is large but completion rates  are low, as is their integration with recognised qualifications. So while this model has 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, but not all, less financially viable than on-campus degrees.

Very large enrolment qualifications offered by a very reputable university would start to change this equation, but no such offerings have emerged in any significant numbers to date.

In short, all the apparent paths to digital disruption have been trialled – and universities have participated in all these forms of trial.
Yet no trial so far 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 disruption of universities is neither smooth nor assured for three further reasons.

1 The importance of dedicated student-teacher interaction

Real learning involves understanding, and for students to understand the information they are provided requires more than just interaction with other students; it requires teacher engagement. It requires tutors to moderate discussions and provide feedback on assessment. These are interactions that demand qualified staff and time for  each student.

There aren’t many areas where interactions and feedback of this kind can be automated, although there have been attempts to provide greater automation.

The personalised path to learning is also subject to academic policies and professional accreditation requirements in many fields, all of which specify the types of academics – and in some cases the numbers of them – needed to ensure the students’ understanding.

2 Certification requirements for higher degree qualifications

Universities have rules that govern how qualifications are certified, typically in line with government or legislative requirements about who can certify that a degree has been achieved. Often there are also requirements about the nature of the learning necessary for certification that prevent a totally online experience.

Certification requirements are also embedded in forms of professional accreditation, which are prerequisite for employment in many areas of study.

3 The quality and reputation of higher education providers

Almost every nation or state has requirements about which institutions can offer degrees. Australia’s recent record in vocational education clearly demonstrates why such rules exist, over and above standards for what is required to achieve a qualification.

Digital content may be borderless, but borders of national regulation are necessary to satisfy public expectations that those who undertake professional responsibilities have been certified by a reliable institution.

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 the understanding gained; that the teaching and assessment 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.

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 earlier.

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 think the landscape will look different in 10 years. And I can make that prediction because the landscape looks very different now than 10 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 experimentation and innovation, take a bigger place in the knowledge economy that will dominate our future.