By DAVID MYTON

A common contemporary trope is that universities are facing a future in which they will be disrupted beyond recognition. In this scenario, the digital revolution – with its artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and new and aggressive private providers – will force many institutions to shut up shop.

While Professor Margaret Gardner AO happily acknowledges there are significant challenges ahead, she is having none of this.

She points to recent research entitled False Alarmism – which finds that contrary to popular perceptions, the labour market is not experiencing unprecedented technological disruption.

The Monash VC and Chair of Universities Australia thinks “false alarmism” is an appropriate description of the apocalyptic predictions around the future of universities.

“Australian universities are transforming as well as dealing with the broader societal transformations,” she declares.

Professor Margaret Gardner AO took up the reins at Monash some three years ago, having previously served as VC at RMIT for nine years. She has also held senior executive positions at the University of Queensland and Griffith.

With a background in economics, she graduated PhD from Sydney University and spent time as a Fulbright Postdoctoral Fellow at MIT, Cornell, and the University of California, Berkeley.

Was it always her ambition to rise to the top job?

“Oh no. No! I spent a large number of years as an academic. I had a tendency to fail to step back fast enough when administrative tasks came my way, so I probably got more exposure than most to abilities to make change and influence things.

“Those opportunities probably had an effect on what I next did, but I didn’t consider being a vice-chancellor until I was actually a PVC.”

She says she very much enjoyed teaching (“apart from marking huge numbers of assessments”) and research (“once you are buried in something it’s just wonderful”) but equally she enjoys the leadership role.

“I guess if you didn’t love it and didn’t really feel you were making a difference, you would probably either not do it, or you would stop. But I’ve loved it.”

 Surveying the digital future

Gardner says the move to digital has impacted on universities and will continue to do so.

“Students spend almost as much time outside class downloading material and looking at material on the web, and interacting with people beyond those who are sitting immediately next to them,” she says.

“That digital interaction is now very common, both in class and outside classrooms, and that will accelerate.”

Some students will have “more wholly online experiences” and virtual reality technologies will impact on fields such as medicine and engineering, changing the way future professionals are exposed to skills and techniques.

“I see an increasing penetration of these digital opportunities in the way we teach, and that will result in different ways that students will interact with their university campus.

“We will certainly interact with students well beyond the boundaries of the physical university campus. But the campus itself will still provide the personal interactions vital to developing the skills and capabilities that are important for the jobs of the future.”

Competition will come from the likes of coding schools and other skills-based providers. However, complex jobs created by transforming economies will require “complex skills and capabilities that don’t come from learning narrow sets of skills such as how to code”.

Students will still need “the input and forward-looking expertise that comes from having the great researcher in your classroom … the strength of universities is flexibility that requires depth of knowledge and breadth of exposure”.

Too many students, too many universities?

Gardner says the demand for university education – “a worldwide phenomenon” – is a response to the transformations taking place in economies.

“There is a need for graduates who have skills and capabilities to work in so many of the new fields that didn’t exist before.

“The economy is transforming, and the complexity and sophistication of what we are requiring from people is transforming.

“If there are too many graduates then why are Australian graduates two and half times more likely to be employed than non graduates?

“I think the demand for university education represents an entirely rational decision by people that this will be the way that they secure their future.”

Collaboration with business and industry

Contrary to what some may think, universities have long had productive relationships with business and industry, Gardner says.

“People forget that many of our professional programs have direct engagement and oversight panels of people in professions. And in degrees that don’t have a professional accreditation path, there’s usually an industry reference panel providing insights into where curriculums should go.

“We have to inform a new curriculum by what we understand about the future from our research, but also what we understand about where industry is seeking skills and capabilities – the two are complementary.”

Increasingly, too, universities have been seeking ways to take their research to the world beyond commercialisation and the creating of start-ups.

“Most research that makes a big difference needs to be engaged firmly with the industries that will give it effect.

“If you want to make changes in therapeutics you needs to be engaged with the pharmaceutical companies; if you want to make changes in the way we actually deal with health you probably need to be engaged with device manufacturers as well as hospitals; the same is true of energy, and you could think of many fields.

“What industry offers is that ability of taking the research and actually giving it effect and impact.”

Also important is engaging with companies and organisations internationally.

“Australia’s research in a whole series of fields sits amongst the top in the world. But we often don’t have the top companies’ R&D arms in Australia – so it has to be an outreach. That’s our challenge.”

Engagement with local communities

Universities reach out globally through teaching and research to students, business and industry, and governments – but every Australian university “in one form or another” values engagement with its local community.

“It comes in different ways,” says Gardner. “Every university I know has engagement with the local schools. And there’s been a lot of work done on providing access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who might not have thought university was open to them.”

Universities also have a strong economic impact on their local areas. They are often the largest employer in their region – particularly in regional and rural institutions. Industrial and employment precincts around universities create jobs and are home to many new enterprises, she says.

“People forget that four out of five start-ups in Australia were created by graduates,” Gardner adds.

The importance of the student experience

It is not possible to provide excellent education without paying attention to the student experience, she says, adding that universities have worked hard to improve this area.

“Remember we are dealing with student experience that requires innovation and clever programs because, on average, Australian universities are quite large – it’s much easier to control the experience of a very small group of students than it is a large group.”

Universities commonly share information about the first year student experience … “What makes the first year student experience good? What makes it sticky for students? What keeps them in that first year? What makes it possible for them to succeed?”

“If you come into an Australian university you are likely to finish with a degree,” she says.

“Australia is in one of the top three or four countries in the world in its ability to take a student in and ensure they complete. You only do that if you care about the student experience and what makes a difference.

“I think Australia has – despite all the talk about attrition – one of the best, that is one of the lowest, attrition rates of university systems in the world.”

Changes in teaching and learning

Gardner says the old didactic “sage on the stage” model of university teaching is on the way out and new ways of learning are being introduced.

“The notion of most of the content in a course being imparted by a lecturer in hour or, even worse, two hour long blocks is not effective and we are trying to change that model.”

However, it is still important for lecturers to engage with their students over shorter periods to convey their passion and insights for their subject.

“I don’t think the lecture will suddenly disappear, but we know people learn more when they actively engaged with the question – so it is better that they are engaged talking with a teacher in class than just listening.”

Gender equity – a level playing field?

Although men and women worldwide aren’t competing on a level playing field, universities “are more equal than most” she says.

“We have less pay disparity, we have better proportions of representation of women in a whole range of ways – so we are more equal, yes.

“But are we equal – no we are not, but we are working hard at it and there are lots of programs to do something about it.

“But we cannot abstract ourselves from a society in which men are advantaged on average relative to women.”

One area universities are addressing is “unconscious bias”, which Gardner says affects men and women.

“It is not that men are advantaged only by men,” she says. “In a society where this is seen as more valuable than that, whether it is gender or race or ethnicity, everybody tends to be influenced unconsciously by that conditioning – so you have to work on unconscious bias.

“You have to have very transparent policies, you have to look at all the ways that you can promote that policy, you have to have policies that will deal with issues of parenting and the like, and the impacts they have on careers – and you have to be prepared to look at the data and ask yourself the hard questions: Why does it look like it is and what can we do to fix it? You have to be consciously working on it all the time.

“That is what we are doing and it is improving, but much more slowly than any of us would like.

“Compared to many other organisations universities do better but we have to keep working hard to do better still.”