Tony Featherstone asked a great question in his blog this week: “If students could swing a giant wrecking ball through Australia’s university sector and rebuild it from the ground up, what would tertiary education look like?”

His point in posing the query was that in all the debate about the future of higher education we hear lots from the government, universities, industry, business and employers about their priorities and demands, but very little about the needs of students.

It’s a fair-enough observation. It certainly might not be intended, but it does appear that the very people central to the actual existence of universities are overlooked in discussions about their future. You could be forgiven for thinking it’s a “leave it to the grown ups” dismissal.

Featherstone writes: “One university after another is spending millions on shiny innovation precincts that encourage multi-disciplinary discoveries, research translation and commercialisation. Their zeal for industry collaboration is commendable.”

He follows this with three key questions:

“Where is the same passion to transform the student experience?”

“Where is the thinking that reinvents campuses from a collection of buildings into a living laboratory for students to invent their job, change the world, or at least try?”

“Where is the risk taking that reimagines the relationship between students and the university?”

Featherstone suggests five potential changes that he thinks might re-calibrate the way we think about the future of higher education. You can read them here – do you think his view has merit?

Over in the UK Allister Heath, writing in The Daily Telegraph, was taking a similar line although his solution for giving students a better higher education experience amounted to: shake up the system through increased competition.

“Many universities are underperforming; teaching can be abominable, especially in research-driven institutions; and some courses do little to bolster young people’s employability,” he declares.

To stimulate change there should be capacity for more for-profit institutions while companies could start awarding “real degrees to formalise the training that they give their staff and apprentices”, plus “proper online-only institutions that are able to compete on cost as well as quality”.

More informed students would be better placed to make good choices about their study needs, says Heath:

“Imagine a simple app that showed what leavers’ salaries were three, five and 10 years from graduation, for each degree category and university. Students would realise that it makes sense to study physics and mathematics at a top university, rather than an English degree at a mediocre one. Institutions would no longer be able to compete with gimmicks.”

Planning regulations may need to be changed, he says, with special education zones set up to allow the creation of new universities close to business clusters or in new locations.

Agree or disagree with Heath, he does provide food for thought.