Choosing calm in the face of uncertainty

If you ask commentators about higher education, you’ll often get alarming statements: the world is changing fast, disruption is looming, interest in degrees is declining, your business model is broken, the era of the conventional university is coming to an end.

Change is upon us, act now and prepare for the future, or be left behind. 

I’ve been working in the rapidly changing field of molecular biology in universities for more than thirty years and have seen, and handled, a lot of change. I’ve moved from working on genes in bacteria, to cell lines, to doing work directly related to human gene therapy using CRISPR, and I’ve seen bench work replaced by bioinformatics. Each year we’ve adopted new tools and new approaches.

The only thing that hasn’t changed during my time at universities, is the fact that what the prophets keep saying ends up being wrong.

I don’t blame them. No one can predict the future. But once you recognise this you have to accept that you cannot prepare for what will happen in ten years, because you don’t know what that is.

So, what should you do?

The first thing is to save time and money by not being drawn into the world of soothsayers and scare mongers.

The second thing is to look backwards, not forwards. The past contains excellent lessons for how to handle difficult challenges.

The third thing is to focus on today, on clear and present dangers, and emerging trends rather than imagined disrupters. And to focus on the fundamentals.

At a university the fundamentals consist of investing time in deep disciplinary knowledge, then allowing experts to connect across disciplines, and with professionals outside. As Pasteur noted in 1854 Le hasard ne favorise que les esprits preparés”- “Luck favours only prepared minds”.

Universities are full of people with prepared minds. But why am I so confident that the core business of universities isn’t facing disruption?

It is perhaps because I’m a bit like Benjamin (the donkey in Orwell’s Animal Farm) in that I’ve heard it all before. But it is also because I’m a biologist who studies DNA.

Student DNA and human DNA have not changed.

What Socrates taught, and what Shakespeare and Orwell wrote, remains relevant to human nature.

And most importantly the human life cycle has not changed. Primary, secondary, and tertiary education remain important. None of these systems has been seriously disrupted by Google University or the Khan Academy. Minerva University, with its exceptional marketing and its one thousand students, has not bowled us over. Nor the UK’s Open University, an institution that I admire very much, that has offered distance learning since its inception more than 50 years ago, and now offers online learning, but has not grown in recent years.

Academics have seen a lot of change over the last 1000 years of university life, but they’ve always learned to adapt to and make good use of the new tools: first books, then videos, and more recently the internet, Microsoft Teams, and AI.

The fundamentals have never changed. We need schools and universities primarily for the young, and aged care for the old.

We also need a sense of place. Our Indigenous people know that, and the majority of Australian students continue to choose to do their first degree, and often a second degree, in the excellent institutions in their home states. 

When I look back, I can detect some trends though. Post-graduate education has steadily grown in professional disciplines, such as business, law, engineering, and health, and I believe this will continue incrementally. Post-graduate degrees have become more important as the educational tide has risen, with a higher proportion of the population completing first primary school, then secondary, and then tertiary education. So yes, look for expansion in post-graduate education. We will also need some upskilling, reskilling, and new paths into education.

But I see no reason to believe a tsunami is coming.

We’ll handle the change, provided that in our universities, that are now very large, we continue to find ways for our expert academics to work with management to respond logically, and don’t send people off to chase wild geese.

I remember when I used to hear the cliché that we should ‘train our students for the jobs that hadn’t been invented yet’. I sat speechless, wondering what on earth that could mean other than to focus on what universities have always championed – critical thinking. Something that, incidentally, can only be taught by focussing on knowledge, as you can’t think critically about nothing.

The clairvoyants will always abound because their prophecies of doom are more energising, than the hard slog of committing to learning and thinking that has sustained universities for a thousand years.

But I don’t think we’ll see a new degree in soothsaying being launched in any credible institution any time soon.

Professor Merlin Crossley is Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic Quality at UNSW



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