From the Vice Chancellor: Universities Accord – What’s the big idea here?

Professor David Lloyd, Vice Chancellor and President

Okay, so, bear with me. We’re going back to the future. Or, at least we’re going back to thinking about the future. Yes, I know it’s a topic that has received some heavy consideration recently (see here, and here, in case you missed it), but thinking about the future seems to be the thing to do at present, so here we go … again.

Waiting for us at the end of today’s metaphorical wormhole isn’t a university for the future (or, sadly, a jetpack, hoverboard or replicator). Instead, today we’re thinking about the Australia of the future. We’re thinking about what this country might look like 30 years from now.

Why? Because this is what the Australian Universities Accord – the biggest rethink of the nation’s higher education system in 15 years – is asking us to do. 

At the end of February, the Universities Accord Panel, chaired by Professor Mary O’Kane, released a discussion paper posing 49 questions about how the nation’s higher education system can improve quality, affordability, sustainability and accessibility. Not just improve those elements for next year – or next election – but for the next 30 years.

A plan for the future.

In releasing that discussion paper, Prof O’Kane invited submissions from all and sundry, calling for “big ideas”, and by its 11 April deadline, the Accord Panel had received more than 300 responses.

Admittedly, it’s likely not every submission is full of big ideas. Big ideas are, by their very nature, rather tricky to pull from the proverbial hat. But it is certain there are some big ideas – most probably very good ones – among those 300-plus submissions, and those big ideas are likely to have a huge impact on Australia’s future.

Now, heeding the warnings of every person who worked on Back to the Future II (and Blade Runner … and 2001: A Space Odyssey …), the future can be tricky. I am not going to try to predict too much about Australia circa-2050. But there are a few themes that hint at where the best big ideas might take us – and how closely that aligns with the direction in which UniSA is already travelling.

The first is the nature of work. It’s going to be different (we can venture that much). Some say it will be unrecognisable, others are more conservative about the changes. Either way, we need to educate people for the jobs of the future, not the jobs of today (or even tomorrow). So, how exactly do you do that?

Well, it will be a challenge, but one way to find out what’s required of the employees of the future is to ask their future employers. Closer ties with industry – for research, of course, but also increasingly for education – is one of the big ideas being toted at present.

In case you missed it, UniSA has just opened a brand-new collaboration entity aimed at achieving just that – our Enterprise Hub, which has been bestowed the Kaurna name, Yangadlitya Kumangka, meaning “for the future, together”.

The Enterprise Hub aims to make it easier for industry and the community to collaborate with the University. And what’s good for our researchers is good for our students, ensuring our curriculum is shaped by industry needs and knowledge, placement opportunities are available, and the necessary pathways are established so our graduates can transition smoothly into jobs.

Only months after opening the Enterprise Hub, employers ranked UniSA graduates number one in Australia for employability in the QILT Employer Satisfaction Survey, and while it’s too early to say those things are directly linked, they are unquestionably linked in philosophy. A philosophy that states we walk into the future together.

That future will be home to a cacophony of new technology. Already, there are sharp concerns about artificial intelligence, and rightly so – without appropriate oversight, it has the potential to cause great harm to society.

So, how do we control that, and ensure technology is a blessing, not a curse?

Again, that will be a challenge, but it’s one we’re already embracing. UniSA is home to Australia’s leading ed-tech institute, the Centre for Change and Complexity in Learning (C3L), and we also have one of the nation’s most progressive policies on AI and academic integrity.

We are committed to teaching our students – and staff – how to harness technology for the greater good.

A key part of understanding that greater good is founded in equity and diversity – ensuring everyone has a chance to contribute to the conversation. This is another big idea being discussed in relation to the Accord – finding ways to include those who haven’t traditionally engaged with higher education.  

UniSA is ranked in the top 25 universities worldwide for social equity. We have the highest proportion of students from a disadvantaged background in the state, and the highest number of first-in-family students. We are working to become a University of Choice for Aboriginal People, and we have dedicated staff integrating Aboriginal Knowledges into our teaching and research. We are supporting more women to enter STEM fields, and half of our senior leadership team are women.

Supporting diversity is also going to be crucial as Australia faces another future challenge: an ageing population and declining birth rate. It is likely school leavers will become a smaller proportion of the university student cohort, and, as work requirements change, we will need to find ways to reskill and upskill those people already in the workforce.

One big idea being floated in response to that is quality online education – something a bit like UniSA Online, which has 78% of students over the age of 24, and provides a platform for lifelong learning, without social or physical boundaries.

Of course, at the bottom of all this is the question of money1. For Australia’s universities to plan 30 years ahead, they really need funding certainty. Industry collaboration and international engagement are one thing, but a bottom-line commitment from all levels of government to invest in knowledge is essential. This is another – very – big idea on the table.

Securing this will, in part, require universities to engage more closely with the community (which, in theory at least, governments serve), and remind them of the value of teaching and research. Perhaps we could open an outreach centre, something like a museum of the future, to... oh wait…

Professor David Lloyd
Vice Chancellor and President

  1. Iain M. Banks’ Culture series of novels makes the interesting suggestion that “money is a sign of poverty”, and sophisticated cultures eventually evolve beyond it. However, his novels are based in a society at least 10,000 years more advanced than ours, so let’s not hold our breath there …