Have we seen the future, and is it Adelaide?

Murmurings in South Australia? Or the future of higher education? First, we live in what Tom Lehrer once memorably termed an era of “crisis and universal brouhaha.” So even if you don’t like the answers, you have to praise the University of Adelaide for producing a document called Towards 2024.

For one thing, I love anyone who uses the term “sesquicentenary” instead of boring old “150th anniversary.” If there is a prefix meaning “one and a half,” it demands to be used.

More to the point, I think that futures thinking is an essential part of strategic planning – not because it has any predictive power, but because it lets you see the organisation as it is today, and plan for possible change. And 12 years into the future is about right for the horizon when considering the future of a specific organisation. Any less is just planning. Any more and you can say anything you like, so nothing interesting gets said.

However, reports in the local Herald-Sun newspaper suggest that not everyone is happy at the university’s attempted forethought. The NTEU academics’ union claims that it paves the way for dumbed-down degrees in which lecturers become learning assistants, and lectures go extinct.

Well maybe. But then perhaps the academics

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should have more self-belief. The model in which a human teacher stands up in front of up to 30 people and tells them about some subject has been established as a successful approach to education for centuries. It works. And from the point of view of university management, it is also highly cost-effective. The information revolution will inevitably change education, but this simple transaction (one-to-many, as the internet mavens say) between an expert and a group of students seems likely to be one constant.

In addition, is the union right to fear that corporate customers seeking graduates will take over key decisions about what the university teaches? For sure, university managers are overly impressed with the wisdom that they think exists within businesses and employers, and indeed any other external “stakeholder.” But I doubt whether their influence will prove to be too sweeping.

All experience of asking employers what they want from graduates has the same result. They don’t know, beyond some basics such as numeracy, literacy and timekeeping. That said, the NTEU’s role

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remains important. It has to push for a continuing awareness that university is about big-picture learning, not for training in short-term skills.

As someone who works in this field, I am well aware that the future cannot be predicted. That’s because it has not happened yet. But here goes anyway.

In 2024 there will still be a pretty good University of Adelaide (it is now 102 in the QS World University Rankings), it will still be employing many academics, and they will probably still be members of a stroppy but

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essential trade union. Good luck to all concerned.

About Martin Ince

UK-based science and higher education journalist, big strengths in universities and university ranking, futures, media strategy and training, Earth and space sciences
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