THE Young University Rankings 2019: shape and be shaped

To stay relevant, universities must collaborate, invest in work-integrated learning and rediscover their community-building role, says Paul Wellings

June 26, 2019
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This year’s Times Higher Education Young University Rankings say farewell to institutions that were founded before 1969. This was a vintage year, defined in popular culture by three days of peace and music at Bethel, New York.

The spontaneity and chaos of this music festival gave us an image of a generation: Woodstock. It opened with Richie Havens and closed with Jimi Hendrix. It acted as a catalyst for social and environmental change and had an important knock-on effect on public institutions, including universities.

Around this time, universities were pushed to revitalise their approach to working with student organisations, became less tentative about public engagement, and proved more willing to experiment with courses and pedagogy. Over 50 years, many of these initiatives have run their course and the staff who took the risk of building their careers in these new and unproven universities have retired.

But nostalgia is a dangerous state in higher education. In reality, 2019 is a world with many more universities than 1969 and the vast majority of institutions are still much younger than 50 years old. Staff are still building careers and reputations in new settings.

Now we have to find new ways to focus on students and the possibilities generated by technology.

Many students hold down one or more part-time jobs and have come through school immersed in a digital world. Universities are responding with investments in learning analytics. The evidence from these tools suggests that the success of undergraduates is linked to attendance and contribution in the classroom. We need to keep students close to and engaged with the opportunities that are available on campus. On top of that, universities are showing signs of financial stress at a time when we need to modernise curricula, invest in work-integrated learning and offer career services at a scale capable of servicing large and diverse student populations.

In the UK and Australia, domestic graduates carry income-contingent loans into their working lives and international graduates have paid full fees. These communities of alumni have to compete for graduate jobs and, as students, are demanding higher standards of teaching, clarity about the skills to be gained from their courses, and support in finding their way into the workforce.

At the same time, universities are being challenged to evidence the way that they interact with their communities. The earlier generation of “redbrick” universities all began as institutions with extraordinary links to and support from their civic partners. Somewhere along the way, a large proportion of universities lost this connection to place. Globalisation has shifted institutional strategy. In the past 30 years many have branded themselves global universities and, in the process, have become institutions “in their city” rather than “of their city”.

Around the world, the scale of regional economic transition and the loss of traditional jobs and industries has put a bright spotlight on the role of universities in civic society, and their capabilities in helping create new industries and new jobs.

Here in Wollongong we are witnessing a shift in the economy as our traditions in steel and coal now coexist with the health, professional and education service sectors. Emerging sectors include technology, medical devices, retirement living services, and energy utilisation and storage; all are driven by ideas arising from universities’ research and development activities.

With capital from the New South Wales state government, the University of Wollongong has invested in helping business incubation and acceleration. Now students, staff and citizens have the possibility of creating their own enterprises in a supportive university environment. A pathway championed in California’s Silicon Valley, the University of Waterloo and the University of Cambridge has become embedded in the community engagement strategies of technology-led universities around the world.

Like many institutions in Australia, Canada, the US and the UK, Wollongong has a major commitment to educating international students and to increasing the opportunity for Australian students to study with overseas collaborators. Wollongong is among a small number of institutions that has more students studying overseas than at our main campus in New South Wales. Our international campuses in Dubai, Hong Kong and Malaysia require the university to teach in a wide range of cultural settings and create opportunities for research and knowledge exchange aligned to the innovation strategies of these territories. The diversification of the university has enhanced student mobility and shaped our approach to transdisciplinary research in ways that we could not have imagined at the time of our foundation in 1975.

The next decade will place much pressure on universities. Every institution will need to reinvest in their campuses and course portfolio. The emergence of 5G and artificial intelligence and the changing demands of our students and staff will drive the rate of reinvention.

All of this will require financial resources and supply-side investment by governments. It is unlikely that taxpayers will have the confidence to support this without a new form of compact with the sector.

Higher education will have to demonstrate speed of action, flexibility in approaches to collaboration with industry partners and a readiness to show how our efforts are relevant to the needs of all our communities. We were able to do some of these things 50 years ago. The big question is whether we have the appetite to reposition the sector once more in the spirit of the present. 

Paul Wellings is vice-chancellor of the University of Wollongong.

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