Professor Annabelle Duncan, Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive Officer of the University of New England

30 October 2017

Annabelle DuncanThe Australian economy is currently transforming. We are moving away from a resource-based economy while simultaneously dealing with the automation of many tasks previously performed by people. The Chief Economist of the Bank of England recently estimated that as many as 80 million jobs in the US and 15 million in the UK will be replaced by robots or by artificial intelligence in the near future. While this obviously includes many unskilled or semi-skilled jobs it is also predicted that large parts of the work of accountants and lawyers for example can and will be automated.

The US Labor Department has predicted that today’s teenagers may have as many as 11 careers over their working life.

Not all is doom and gloom, despite the reports of jobs disappearing and increased underemployment. I read an article recently that Amazon is creating more jobs than it destroys, they are different jobs but they are jobs. The Progressive Policy Institute in Washington has estimated that new e-commerce jobs outnumber what they refer to as the bricks and mortar jobs in retail, by 54,000 in the past year alone.

But this does highlight the need for change, for flexibility and for life-long learning. This is becoming a fact of life and if we want a flexible workforce, able to cope with the changing employment market we must enable people to tailor their education to their own and society’s needs.

We need to understand that a mature age student studying at tertiary level for the first time, or coming back to study after many years in the work force approaches study differently to an 18 year old school leaver.

University of New England was the first regional university in Australia and the first to offer “distance education”.

In the words of the first Vice-Chancellor Robert Madgwick the teaching each student receives should “be specifically designed to help him. It should not merely be the sort of teaching other students get who are interested in other things….. The organisation of teaching by departments is well enough when the aim is to produce a specialist. Its purpose is to advance the subject through specialised teaching. Its danger is that the subject may become more important than the student – and to me the student not the subject must remain the central feature of the university.”

How much more important now even than back in 1955 when these words were written. The ethos of the university has always been to help to overcome regional educational disadvantage, to give people who were capable of completing a tertiary education, the opportunity to do so, unhindered by problems of distance.

In the 21st century the constraining factors are more likely to be time than physical distance and the “distance” education has become “online” education. But the intention is the same.

When we identified a group of working adults who wanted shorter, more flexible courses that could help them to prepare for the changes they saw coming in their work life we looked at how we could respond to this need. Our Bespoke Courses at UNE were offered to cater for the needs of this group of students. They can choose either the fundamental or the most advanced units from among our regular offerings, or a combination of both. They can, if they would rather, mix and match units from across different fields of study entirely. They receive the same support as are our degree students and receive a Certificate of Completion for each unit and for the completed Bespoke Course.

Nested qualifications, alternative exit points, flexible submission times for assignments, which accommodate work commitments are all responses to student needs. Continuous enrolment and exams anytime may be future adaptations, if they help students get the education they need.

Flexibility of offerings and exit points is not about lowering standards. It is taking what we know about pedagogy, about student needs and preferences and enabling people to get the skills they will require to continue to contribute to a strong inclusive society in the face of rapid change.

We must accept the fact that if we want to avoid massive middle-age unemployment, if we want a vibrant, healthy economy, we must help those whose current jobs are changing rapidly or disappearing altogether, to get the skills they need to transition to the new economy. These people do not have the luxury of taking three years or even one year off work, away from family responsibilities, away from the financial imperatives to earn as they acquire the new skills. They are likely to take longer to complete formal courses, they may hesitate to commit to long term courses of study. I spoke recently to one former student who has started a coursework Masters degree twice, only to have to drop out, twice, when work commitments become too onerous. He still wants to complete a Masters degree but is unlikely to enrol a third time, unless there is some flexibility, maybe via nested qualifications, to allow him to juggle high level, time consuming work commitments, family and study.

We need to take student demographics and learning needs into account. We need to accept that the higher education sector is not homogeneous and that the traditional 50 minute lecture and the traditional three year Bachelor degree does not suit everyone’s needs. We need diversity in our sector, not just in what we teach but also in how we teach.