what are universities for?

By robynjay On January 6th, 2012

In the past month two women I know employed by different universities in Sydney and who I know are passionate about students, learning and quality teaching practice have resigned.

I’ve blogged about the death of universities as centres of learning and teaching before but it seems to me rather than being addressed, the situation continues to worsen. It’s now two and a half years since Gerry Nolan’s post in the Australian; does no-one listen?

If universities are no longer places of learning then let’s be upfront about it. Give course funding to those who care, or (heaven forbid) the learners, and allow them to do it well. Use universities as research centres instead, pure and simple. If we’re serious about being a knowledge nation it’s time we focused on supporting REALLY good learning and teaching, and insisting that those paid to facilitate this are fully trained, equipped, supported and acknowledged for doing so.

[CC FlickR image by Daniel Morris]

education: right or privilege?

By robynjay On January 18th, 2010

We now live in a country where the right to a free, general education pretty much ends at age 18. Young people have known no different. They are excluded from improving their skills if money is tight, and are burdened with debt at the time of their lives when they need those savings most. Sure places like TAFE offer subsidies but its far from ideal. Education now equals money earning citizens not enriched lives.

Recent discussions by Mike Bogle and Simon McIntyre reflect a reaction to this contemporary position.

When I was 19 I undertook a free undergraduate higher education degree.  In my late 20s, with little money, I enjoyed so called ‘hobby’ courses at TAFE. If I paid fees, they were minimal. In my mid-30s I worked in the field of adult literacy and numeracy. The students who attended could choose whether to pursue a qualification (generally their Yr 10 equivalent) or simply to focus on their particular need. For people with a disability this was often money focused, for youth – getting their licence, and for older people-being able to read to their children and grand-children. The important thing was that they had a choice, and it was free – no question.

Under the Howard Government in Australia, the education of its citizens became aligned to skilling up workers. The days when a grandmother could gain free informal but professional literacy support disappeared. By 2006 NO provider in NSW was able to offer literacy assistance to adults that was not aligned to a qualification. From that time on grandmothers and people with intellectual disabilities were force fed through a qualification encompassing competencies they would never use, for a piece of paper they did not care about.

During this period we also saw Adult & Community Education (ACE) colleges move from centres of community enrichment and wellbeing, to a mix of so called ‘hobby’ courses and vocational education and training (VET) to a situation where, if non-accredited courses are run they come hand in hand with a pretty hefty fee to offset the lack of adequate Government support. Number crunching became the requirement, and creative mapping of personal enrichment courses to potential VET outcomes and future careers was what enabled centres to stay afloat but still meet community needs. And quite rightly so.  A creative drawing course can easily inspire an individual to take up a career in design etc. The benefits of engagement in learning for individuals and their families is well documented.

Post-compulsory non-accredited education in Australia is now only afforded to those with superfluous income, OR those with the skills and motivation to establish and manage their own personal learning environment (PLE). In terms of the latter, not many have those capabilities.
Set this against a changing world where working lives are complex and ever changing; where the need for generic skills of resilience, flexibility, knowing how to learn and locate information, team work, innovation far outweigh specific practical skills. In the VET world leaders are documenting the need for students to be supported in picking and choosing from multiple qualifications, with a resulting portfolio of competencies rather than a rigid qualification. The needs are changing but organisational structures are NOT.

Higher Education has the potential to truly focus on community education and enrichment but is totally hamstrung by archaic power structures, and an elitism that will be its undoing. It is of course at the mercy of Government funding and priorities place it’s staff on a treadmill of research and time demands that distract from innovative teaching, but it’s whole position is outdated and irrelevant.

In terms of informal opportunities at a University level  I think there are other options apart from trying to squeeze people into a mould.  They say courses are full but I have not yet seen a lecture theatre or tutorial room that does not have any empty seats. What would it take to offer a small number of places for people to sit in? Imagine the benefits of having mature community members engage in conversations with enrolled students. No assessments, no grades. For young people it’s a good opportunity to decide whether the course is indeed for them; for older community members it’s an opportunity for extending their skills and sharing their wisdom. People attend actual courses, rather than simply watching recorded video because they seek interaction; this would offer that.

So the issue that started all this was what to offer young people who miss out on their university place. I’m going to be quite radical here and suggest that they simply should get out in the world, travel and work, and have time to think about their true interests. Too many young people move straight from 13 years at school to another 4+ at university. They make bad choices based on parents and school content and accrue debt as a result.The worst result is for these individuals to accept other courses simply because they are all they could gain entry to. I saw this in Education and the result is a bunch of mediocre teachers. I’ve seen it in Science where students have gained entry with an entrance score of less than 50/100.

If you build it, they don’t always come…

The desire for ‘a degree’ is driven by a society where recruitment and progression is based on those bits of paper instead of real skills. Universities are a classic case in point; where a PhD in an obscure topic is deemed more important than actual capability and experience for jobs that do not require high level research. Higher level positions are almost unobtainable unless you’re a life long academic and yet the pay rates offered are abysmal. It’s no wonder they cannot get good staff when needed.

Universities need to get their act together if they wish to remain relevant in the middle to long term. They need to focus on quality teaching, innovation, openness, community connections and education in its truest sense. They need to recognise the skills and knowledge that people bring to a course as a result of life. And they need to be seen as a flexible and welcoming place for conversation and learning. We are now in a space where students will vote with their feet and pick and choose from the talented educators who typically are open and accessible. Perhaps what is need is a new model of educational organisation; one for the future.

cc licensed flickr photo by Seryo