Sharon Kerr speaks with Professor Steven Schwartz

Recently I was privileged to interview Professor Steven Schwartz for HECG. I first met Professor Schwartz when working at Macquarie University and remembered well his alert to the Higher Education Sector in 2010 of the changing times ahead. At a town hall meeting on the campus he warned us all that as a sector we were facing our “Kodak Moment”. The times were changing and we all would need to rethink the way we taught, researched and operated universities.

In 2011 while many in the sector were still questioning whether or not ebooks would have a role in Higher Education, Professor Schwartz was publishing his own ebook complete with multimedia.  So in 2015, what did Professor Schwartz see as the next big development for Higher Education, what needed to happen?

When asked this question he provided two answers.

His first response was, the further development, sophistication and proliferation of online education with it playing a central and essential role in education delivery. We talked about this area for sometime especially with regard to the equity opportunities that online education could deliver and new initiatives such as the use of augmented reality for lesson delivery.

Professor Schwartz’s second response took me totally by surprise when he mentioned mastery learning and competency based assessment. He said “you do not want a surgeon who has just achieved a C level, so why should it be any different for other subjects”.

Professor Schwartz used the example of the Western Governors University, a non for profit online university based out of Utah in the United States.

This university was founded in 1997 by 19 State governors led by Governor Michael Leavitt and Governor Roy Romer in response to concerns regarding both the cost of Higher Education and the skill level of graduates. Interestingly, two concerns that resonate with current debate in the Australian Higher Education sector.

Competency based learning was the model chosen by this new university, with mastery of the subject being studied being the goal and motivation behind the curriculum design, delivery and assessment.

“How many areas of life do you get by in without having to master what you are doing.” commented Professor Schwartz

He proceeded to elaborate on the benefits that this approach holds for students.

“All students”, have the opportunity to learn at their own pace”. For some students this would mean that they have the opportunity to complete their studies faster, however the flexibility also serves students who need to take longer to reach a mastery level. For some students this approach could provide personal financial gain with less time being out of the workforce. For international students, less time away from home. Indeed food for thought as the sector looks for new approaches to meet the learning needs of domestic and international students as well as the skill demands from employer groups.

I proceeded to ask Professor Schwartz to draw on his experience as a Vice Chancellor of three universities, and to share what advice would he give to universities in this time of change.

His response “Think about the purpose of the institution, why does society want the universities? Spend time thinking about why you are here?” With this one response he distilled the cacophony of issues and questions with which the Higher Education sector is currently struggling.

When we look back to the origin of Universities in Australia in the 1850s we see that the great public Universities of Australia, Melbourne University and the University of Sydney opened with a very strong sense of purpose and place within Australia’s society and economy.

Influenced by academic, social and economic debate at the time, these universities were set up to serve, enrich and equip the colonisers to manage the newly independent Australian colonies.

As the years rolled by in Australia we saw the focus changing with new universities emerging out of change of the times. Australian National University (ANU) for example was set up as a postgraduate research university in the postwar years, he University of Western Sydney (UWS) grew out of the amalgamation of Colleges of Advanced Education as part of the Dawkins reforms of the Hawke Labor Government.

So in 2015, what is the role of Universities, of your university in both your community and the broader nation? What are the expectations of the people who you serve and who fund your existence? Asking these questions is good counsel from an experienced Vice Chancellor and will stand the sector in good stead as it seeks to set its strategic direction moving forward.

Professor Steven Schwartz is currently holding a number of advisory roles to the Higher Education Sector. After retiring as Vice Chancellor form Macquarie University, Professor Schwartz joined Oxford University. He also holds a number of eminent roles, these include Executive Director, Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, (CHASS) and Senior Fellow, Centre for Independent Studies, with the L H Martin Institute at the University of Melbourne . Professor Schwartz also holds a number of board positions.