Our core purpose remains critical for universities of the future

3 October 2023
Edited version of Professor Jagose's recent APRU plenary address
Provost and Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Annamarie Jagose calls for continued and unconstrained generation of new knowledge in places of student learning.
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Provost and Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Annamarie Jagose

Those of us in higher education are spurred to think about how our teaching and learning environments might best respond to the radical skills disruption currently experienced across all advanced economies.

One approach is to employ a ‘futuring’ mindset: rather than trying to predict the future which so often has an unstable relation to accuracy, this anticipatory methodology scrutinises the present for informed indications of what might be about to happen at greater scale.

Undertaking such exploration, I’ve identified four key areas of focus – the familiarity of which suggests they might be useful to speculate about our preparedness for teaching in the university of the future.

Ultimately however, what’s critical is less what will be new and different about the universities of the future than what is distinctive and unique to universities, contemporary and historical.

We must retain our core purpose: the continued free and unfettered development of new knowledge in an environment also committed to student learning.

The value of degree programs

One clear and current tension for universities is the degree to which tertiary education remains relevant to the changing conditions into which our students will graduate. This is often expressed in terms of career readiness and social impact.

Universities are used to thinking about learning in disciplinary terms and to administering those disciplines in terms of volumes of learning, learning outcomes, methods of assessment and degree structures. But increasingly, questions are being asked as to the value of being proficient in discipline X when the goal is educating learners for career readiness and social impact.

But is career readiness the most appropriate measure of quality learning? And if we agree that career readiness has value, are universities sufficiently connected to business and industry to know what that really looks like?

The need for lifelong learning opportunities  

Challenges to the continuing adequacy of the traditional model of graduating from a multi-year degree into a world of stable employment correspondingly drives interest in the prospect of lifelong learning – the self-motivated, needs-based, top-up educational or skills development to meet future workforce needs.

However despite a shared vision for effective partnerships between government, industry and the higher education sector, universities often struggle to meet the demands for flexible curriculum development and delivery, given their traditional mechanisms and time frames for course approval and their workforce’s full commitment to existing, credit-bound, and semester-based teaching programs.

Given their commitments – both disciplinary and economic – to degree-based education, are universities well situated to offer the more flexible and mastery-based approaches better suited to lifelong learners?

The North American National Science Foundation has invested in an innovative approach through its Convergence Accelerator ‘Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier’ track.

Since 2020, it has funded Georgia Tech, Eduworks and their industry partners to develop SkillsSync, an AI-enabled platform that connects employers and higher education providers, using natural language processing to identify current and emerging workforce trends and skills frameworks and enabling real-time identification of training gaps and curriculum alignment opportunities.

The impact of COVID on learning and assessment  

When government responses to COVID-19 mandated radical constraints to in-person engagement, a common experience for universities internationally was the rapid and wholesale transition of their learning and assessment to remote delivery.

This led to an intensive period of collaborative focus on the educative mission of universities and a more widespread acknowledgment of the necessity for teaching to be driven, directly or indirectly, by contemporary theories of effective learning.

In our current post-COVID crisis moment, we find increased levels of understanding among teaching academics of the importance of educational technology skills. There is a lessened regard for the traditionally dominant lecture format, or the unidirectional transfer of information to a large group bound to the same time and place coordinates, and an increased understanding of the importance of modes of assessment that support genuine learning and

student integrity. We find that there is increased acceptance of hybrid learning modalities and increased recognition that online and face-to-face modes can be brought together to support appropriately different types of learning.

But our physical and technological infrastructure does not easily support our ambitions for effective hybrid learning. And we find a not always consistent appreciation of both the social interaction and participation of face-to-face encounters and the flexibility and inclusiveness of online learning environments.

The challenges and possibilities of technology for education

Generative AI, of course, is the remarkable and rapidly advancing technology about which most speculation about educational technologies is being generated, for the ways in which it is already transforming our students’ lives and potential careers, as well as the knowledge, skills and strategies that our academics need for success as educators and researchers.

In such a world, what is the point of educating our students in fact acquisition, long-form essay writing, or the reproducibility of scientific experimentation?

Advances in generative AI will be ferociously fast, transformational and not all predictable from the vantage point of the present.

Retaining our core purpose

Yes, we hope that universities of the future will educate learners for career readiness and social impact. Yes, we hope that universities of the future will be more responsive to national skills gaps and workforce development. Yes, we hope that universities of the future will partner more effectively with industry, government and communities to address critical challenges of our time.

But when our goals become instrumental we not only stray from the core purpose of universities but are also likely to be bested in our attempts by other agencies or providers who can afford to take a narrower, more focused, brief.

As we negotiate the route to a future university that will undoubtedly not resemble our current iterations in important ways, let’s make sure we keep at the heart of our collective project the value of the unconstrained generation of new knowledge in places of student learning.

An edited version of the plenary address delivered by the University of Sydney’s Provost and Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Annamarie Jagose to the Association of Pacific Rim University’s conference on Monday 25 September 2023.

This article was first published by The Australian.

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