Melbourne v-c predicts ‘fewer comprehensive universities’

Shift to lifelong learning opens up opportunities for ‘niche, digital’ providers, says Glyn Davis

October 24, 2017
Crowded beach
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Escaping the crowd: the move towards graduate and continuous education could create ‘more but smaller institutions’

In nearly 13 years as vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, Glyn Davis has reshaped the way that Australia’s leading higher education institution educates its students.

As he prepares to step down at the end of next year, Professor Davis shares the view of many university leaders that the impact of technological change on careers will force academics to once again rethink their relationship with learners: shifting from an intensive, three-year experience to a lifelong relationship in which graduates frequently refresh their knowledge and expertise via online courses.

Where Professor Davis goes further than many of his peers, perhaps, is in his prediction of how this could lead to a restructuring of the higher education sector.

Speaking to Times Higher Education in his office in Melbourne, Professor Davis argued that in time this shift would produce more specialist providers and, significantly, “fewer comprehensive universities”.

While most students will still attend large face-to-face institutions for their undergraduate degrees, the shift of training towards graduate level and continuous education would create significant opportunities for “niche, digital” providers, Professor Davis said.

“I’ve read all those predictions that say in 50 years’ time there’ll only be 10 universities; I think the opposite will be true,” said Professor Davis, who will return to research and teaching at the end of 2018. “I think there will be many more than we currently have; they won’t necessarily be the ones we currently have but I think we will go the other way.

“Once you go to digital and specialisation, you’re less dependent on being very large, so we might see more but smaller institutions as a big feature, and those that endure might have to be more specialised themselves, for example in undergraduate education or in some disciplines.”

Melbourne is already making efforts to develop lifelong learning relationships with its students: in fields such as law, engineering and medicine it has introduced a range of highly specialised online courses for graduates, reflecting how workers in these fields only begin to develop their specialism several years after leaving university, and how technology is changing these careers.

At undergraduate level, Professor Davis argues that universities must redouble their focus on teaching generic skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving, to prepare them for a workplace in which the actual content of their degrees may quickly become out of date.

In many ways, these trends are an acceleration of the changes brought about by Professor Davis’ “Melbourne model” of education, which saw the university abandon the British model of specialised bachelor’s degrees in 2008 and adopt broader, US-style major-minor courses. Professional training, for example in law, takes place at postgraduate level.

Since then, employer opinions of Melbourne’s shift had gone “from sceptical to warm” and, crucially, the university’s students were able to make their career choices later, Professor Davis said.

“If we’ve helped [students] see the range of choices and make a better informed choice, then we’ve made a real difference in their lives,” Professor Davis said. “We’ve trained fewer people in the profession they don’t want to do and more in the one that they are actually really excited about.”

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As he prepares to step down next year, Professor Davis said that there could have been “no greater privilege” than leading Melbourne and conceded that it would only be human to “mourn that when it goes”. But he said that he was looking forward to returning to research and teaching and hoped to make the shift with the same “grace and elegance” as others who had returned to the frontline after leading a university. Part of the “pleasure”, Professor Davis added, would be seeing people with whom he had worked go on to make more significant contributions in their own right.

Professor Davis’ stepping down will also mean that Australia will no longer boast a vice-chancellor power couple: his wife, Margaret Gardner, leads Monash University in the same city, having previously been head of RMIT University.

Professor Davis said that it had been a “real privilege to have that partnership”.

“You get good at recognising what you can and can’t talk about but of course it’s helpful to have someone who is in the same profession and can talk to you and knows the issues and knows the cycle of work…it’s been enjoyable and I think we’ve managed to make it work,” he said. “I recommend it for others.”

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