Business Needs to Keep Pace with Universities

Dr Andy Marks

Consulting group EY reckons in its new report (The Australian, May 2) that Australia’s universities must ‘deconstruct the higher education value chain’ to avoid obsolescence.

Thanks, guys, we’ll get right to it. Just as soon as we’re done contributing $140 billion in research value-adding to gross domestic product and $28 billion in exports.

According to EY, our failure to ‘collaborate with business on innovation’ is the reason for Australia’s last place on the OECD ranking of industry-research partnerships.

Perhaps we could stand outside the banking royal commission and hand out business cards to corporates who are just clamouring to innovate?

Disruption, says EY, is at the heart of a changing value proposition universities must face. I agree. But it’s wrong to assume universities are passive subjects of disruption. We’re the primary drivers of it.

At Western Sydney University we are obsessed with disruptive degree reform. We have to be. We encompass one of the largest unskilled and rapidly transitioning labour markets in the country.

Across our region we’re contending with degree attainment gaps of up to 40 per cent compared with the rest of Greater Sydney, and a government that evidently thinks that gap is fine.

In this setting, disrupting teaching and research models isn’t a strategy or something that occurs at the edges.

It’s core business.

This year, we’re launching Start-up/Scale-up, a program that reconceives the curriculum and the learning experience for aspiring start-ups, or people running or working in small and medium-sized enterprises. This new offering delivers pretty much everything on the EY ‘to do’ list: modularity for micro-credentials, co-creation and co-delivery with industry partners, work-integrated learning opportunities. It’s even partly taught out of the university’s start-up incubator.

The way universities teach also is changing. Lecture theatres, where theories and concepts were presented to students in abstract form, are giving way to ‘flipped’ modes of collaborative learning. In this setting, students present concepts back to their peers and lecturers as they learn.

WSU believes the interactive model replicates and refashions contemporary working environments, the end result being that business needs to keep pace with graduate expectations, just as much as students need to meet those of business.

The idea of what constitutes a campus is another frontier. The University of Tasmania, University of Newcastle and Western Sydney University are in the throes of establishing vertical campuses in CBDs. The aim is to diffuse perceived and actual barriers between universities, business and the community. These measures are actively breaking the industry collaboration impasse.

EY is right to urge a rethink in the way the labour market contends with emerging technologies. But to portray universities as static in the face of this challenge is not only inaccurate; it fails to address the collaborative vacuum they decry.

You can’t, as EY asserts, ‘future proof’ in the face of disruption. But you can – as universities are doing – engage it and shape it in the national interest. For that to succeed, however, we need government, business, and even professional services firms to recognise the opportunity and work together.

Dr Andy Marks is Assistant Vice-Chancellor at Western Sydney University. This article was originally published in The Australian on 8 May 2018.

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