The Core Business of Universities: Is it Education?

One would imagine that the core business of a university is education. After all, students go to university to learn critical thinking, acquire wisdom and develop skills with the intention of becoming leaders in society and being gainfully employed professionals.

However, a speech by Hon Alan Tudge, Australia’s Federal Minister for Education, highlights the perception that many Australian Universities are neglecting their core mission. 

Hon Alan Tudge, Minister for Education

The minister reminded us that, “Our public universities were initially established for one purpose: to educate Australians.”

But he then complained that, “In the past several months, I have had almost every Vice-Chancellor talk to me about research and international students, but not many talk to me about their ambitions for Australian students.”

The minister articulated what many in academia have complained about for years; that at many universities, undergraduate education has been neglected, in terms of both its standards and contents. The perception at many (not all) universities is that low academic standards have been paired with a steady stream of academic fads.

The problem is not unique to Australia. When I taught at the University of Dallas, a smaller liberal arts college with a rigorous core curriculum, I was proud that our students could run rings round Ivy League graduates. They were simply better formed in critical thinking and their intellectual tradition.  However, it also seems now that the standards of higher education correlate to their substance. That is, rigorous standards foster better knowledge and more genuine critical thinking. But the opposite also holds true. Too often, higher education is both decadent and beholden to the latest fads. So I wasn’t surprised to read a North Korean defector claim recently that "'even North Korea was not this nuts" after they attended an Ivy League school.

In Australia, Dr Bella d'Abrera’s study “The Future of History” turned up some disturbing findings on the way that history is taught in many Australian Universities. 

Dr d'Abrera found most Australian universities focus their history programs on themes such as Identity Politics. She explained that only three history programs (University of Notre Dame, Campion College, and Federation University) gave adequate coverage to the “Essential Core Topics in the History of Western Civilisation.” 

There is a strong perception that in history, and other humanities, the content taught results in many university graduates emerging without the knowledge base and critical thinking skills needed for success in the workforce. Instead, it is believed that they graduate with a sense of grievance and entitlement, and hostility towards core Australian values.

I wonder if it is more than coincidental that the two universities that taught history well from within our intellectual tradition also scored well for teaching quality. In the national Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT) Graduate Outcomes Survey, released in May 2018,  Federation University “was ranked first in Victoria for undergraduate student support, skill development, teaching quality, overall employment and median salary…” At the same time, the University of Notre Dame scored third in Australia for teaching quality, and second for overall experience.

So where do we go from here? The Minister acknowledged that the relevant student experience surveys for 2020 “were not great - for obvious reasons.”

But he noted that “I am still hearing from too many students or their parents who tell me that their usual student experience has still not returned. That they may only have one contact hour or none.” 

So he called for, “a focus in our universities on how to enhance the classroom and learning experience of Australian students. And this must start with a return to the previous face-to-face learning, where COVID rules allow.”

But one wonders whether the minister’s ambition for a return to quality teaching will be realised at all universities.   

To raise one point of concern; at some universities, online education has been embraced too quickly and enthusiastically, to the point where some students are complaining about “'Netflix' degrees and robot teachers.” Some outsourced programs have been labeled a money-making “scam.” 

Online education can be done well and effectively, and flipped learning can be most effective – if they are done with the right investment of people and technology. But it does require a commitment to the core business of a university, which is education.

I would not want a reader to think that all universities have neglected undergraduate education. A number of Australian universities and colleges perform very well in their core business of education (and I am proud to serve at one of them). 

But where education has been neglected, what can be done? I would also argue that reconceiving the priorities of education will boost standards and content simultaneously. I will say more about how that can be done in a future blog. But I will highlight one point very briefly, the Minister was spot-on when he emphasised “Research commercialisation and industry collaboration.”

In the future of higher education, a more substantial relationship between universities, businesses, and other stakeholders will be utterly vital.

The commercialisation, or real-life application, of scholarship will help to keep education “real” and focused on truth, high standards, and critical thinking skills.

To put the point concretely. Imagine you are involved in the airline industry, as a manufacturer, an airline, or a passenger. By whom would you rather the plane be designed and built? I suspect it would be highly educated people who are skilled in critical reasoning, creative insight, and who have a passion for excellence and ethical concern for the common good.

I'll say more in my next blog.

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