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­­5 August 2012

Leo Baeck Centre for Progressive Judaism


Renate Kamener Oration – Do Universities have A Future?


1. Intro and a conundrum


Thank you Larry. It is an honour to speak in memory of your mother Renate, a great educator and advocate of education.


As June Factor observed recently, Renate was among those tireless, unsung people who create a community.  Amid a lifetime of commitment, Renate is fondly remembered for her work among refugees, including Muslim women.


In last year’s Oration, Gareth Evans paid a moving tribute to the great courage of Renate and Bob, recalling their risks in fighting apartheid, and their determination to oppose racism in every form.


If I may quote Gareth:


Renate herself certainly did make a difference to many lives, in her teaching and in her deep engagement with so many community organisations committed to peace and reconciliation and fundamental human rights.  It is a legacy of which she and her family can be very proud.


The scholarship for Indigenous students at the University of Melbourne, supported by this Oration, is a fitting memorial to Renate Kamener’s passion for justice.


And it is appropriate we gather at the Leo Baeck Centre for Progressive Judaism, given Renate’s help in establishing the Australian Jewish Democratic Society.  The Society and Centre link us to the important role of Reform Judaism in post-war Australia.  Historian Suzanne Rutland has written how detainees who arrived on the Dunera in 1940, and in the years after, laid the basis for important changes in Jewish life in Australia.


This nation continues to struggle with issues of the newly displaced, including how we respond to refugees and asylum-seekers who arrive on boats.  The leadership of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society on this profound question of justice remains an inspiration.



Our subject tonight was close to Renate’s heart, education.  And the issue is change:  will the familiar university campus go the way of newspapers, rendered irrelevant by the internet?  It costs a great deal to support universities, build lecture theatres, and fund students to attend.  On-line learning offers cheaper digital options for education, without the expense of gothic towers, playing fields and medieval graduation robes.  In a world of e-learning alternatives, does the university campus have a future?



We can consider the topic through two contending views.  Few doubt the levelling effects of technology [2 CLICKS] on many industries and institutions.  So naturally people in universities wonder whether the campus will join the fixed line telephone, the morning newspaper, the printed street directory and the book store as familiar items made redundant in a digital world.


Given the extraordinary impact already of information technology in media, banking and retail, the university sector will not escape its effects.


Faced with the unknown, people divide into optimists and pessimists.  All might expect change, but read the possibilities very differently, as great opportunities or distinct threats. 


For the optimist, there are encouraging signs the yearning for a shared experience through time on campus remains strong amid a digital world.  People still like to interact in real time and space.  [2 CLICKS]  We can watch our favorite music on YouTube [CLICK]  yet live music venues thrive, and music festivals have revived in recent years.


Likewise, though almost every work of art is now available for inspection on-line, people will still line up for major exhibitions at Museums and Art Galleries.


As digitization improves in quality, everything can be turned into a virtual format – yet people still seek time together in public, to pursue their interests and express who they are.  Our meeting tonight is an example.


But in a digital age, [2 CLICKS] what role does a campus have? For the pessimist, this is far from clear.  At best, campus education may become like opera, a highly subsidised pleasure for the few, but not the way most Australians experience music.


Technology will enhance the campus experience – streaming lectures so students can catch classes they miss via laptop or iPad, allowing electronic submission of assignment, and eliminating all that paperwork which required earlier generations to queue in long lines to speak with harassed administrative staff.


But people may decide to skip campus altogether and study from their homes, access libraries on-line, chose chat rooms over tutorials and content from international universities over local providers.  As the remorseless logic of on-line provision spreads, so maybe the campus becomes redundant, a memory of an earlier, less technologically sophisticated time.


The debate about the future of campus [CLICK] centres on two key questions:


  • are universities changing [CLICK], from distinct places where you earn a degree, into brokers of knowledge, packaging materials drawn from many institutions and licencing them as a degree?


  • Or will universities [CLICK] remain distinct places and spaces for learning, using online resources to enhance offerings but remaining locations you must visit to earn a degree?



2. Some ideals of a university


So what is a university? [2 CLICKS]  The topic has been debated at least since John Newman Henry’s The Idea of a University was presented in Dublin as a series of lectures in 1852, the year before the University of Melbourne was established.


The literature bristles with contending viewpoints – some idealist, such as Newman, who favoured an institution without research or practical subjects to ruin the contemplation of the eternal, others following Clark Kerr, who coined the phrase ‘multiversity’ to highlight the many different functions of the contemporary university, from pure abstraction to the practical business of graduating accountants and doctors for a useful life in society.


There are points of agreement. Universities are self-contained communities concerned with knowledge: theoretical, basic, professional, applied.  Universities are formal accreditation bodies that certify a graduate has attained a recognised level of competence within a particular field of knowledge, and can be trusted to serve the public as a dentist, an economist, an architect.


Others see a cultural aspect to the university mission. Victorian era educators saw universities as places for the formation of ‘character’.  In his speech Princeton for the Nation’s Service, Woodrow Wilson argued ‘The purpose of a university should be to make a son as unlike his father as possible.’


Philosopher John Armstrong [2 CLICKS], in his essay In Search of Civilization, sees the university as a place for individuals to develop their capacities to relate.


The central ambition of the civilising process is to develop – and improve – the quality of our relationships.  We have relationships to ideas, places, people, objects, difficulties and opportunities, memories, ambitions.  


This idea of place resonates through most descriptions of a university.  The university is a physical presence, a space where young people find out about the world and themselves, acquire knowledge, emerge as an individual.  


On this view, a university is a very particular form of community, where a sense of place matters.  Those who run universities therefore pay close attention to physical spaces – the libraries, classrooms and lawns, the symbols of learning as students acquire a rich understanding of their subject.


So one interesting effect of the internet challenge has been a renewed focus on place.  To encourage students to spend time on campus, universities must provide enticing places for students to work and mix.  [2 CLICKS] 


Universities around Australia have been thinking hard about the new classroom, the better library.  Campus buildings opened in recent years are responses to the internet, a move from the merely functional to the persuasive – ‘look’, they call out, ‘here is the university experience embodied in architecture, a place to enjoy being a student, a space to learn that no web site can match’.


Among those leading innovation in teaching spaces is my colleague Associate Professor Peter Jamieson (here tonight).  At universities in Australia, England, Scotland and beyond, Peter leads a rejuvenation [2 CLICKS] of what it means to be a university building. 


His designs emphasise engagement.  Every chair, table and wall-hanging is carefully considered.  Unlike the traditional lecture theatre with hundreds of people seated in rows looking down at a lecturer, Peter plans spaces Peter that promote student-to-student discussion.  The teacher surrenders the traditional privileged position of hierarchical dominance.  Sight lines mean everyone [2 CLICKS] can see everyone else at all times.  No-one takes the ‘seat of authority’ because Peter’s tables are all round, at different heights, and designed to encourage interaction. 


Here architecture expresses pedagogy, promoting the campus as a place for collaborative learning.  Education happens in spaces designed to accentuate shared learning.


A preference for some physical presence in a digital world is happening beyond formal learning areas, in what Peter calls ‘third places’ [2 CLICKS].  We see this in the fabric of Melbourne.  Cafés and bars are proliferating, on campus and all around us, in city and suburbs.  These are places for congregation, points of contact and connection.  Susan Cain, the author of a recent book on introverts called Quiet!, wrote her manuscript every day in a New York café, surrounded by other writers tapping away on their laptops but enjoying some company as they access the digital world.


It is early in the digital revolution, but it seems dual mode education resonates for many – on-line information and the social interaction of time on campus, a café culture with a wireless connection.


This invites universities to rethink campus design.  One local institution has announced it will build no more large lecture theatres.  Everywhere there is a swing toward community spaces, achieved through rejuvenating older buildings to take advantage of their human scale.  [3 CLICKS]  Around campus we see students learning with each other in settings that convey important memories and echoes of the university ideal.



3. A place of encounter


So let’s contrast these two views of the future of the university campus, the optimistic and the pessimistic or, perhaps, the romantic and the clear-eyed.


We could sum up a romantic view of university [2 CLICKS] by calling it a place of encounter.  Though a young woman might enrol in actuarial studies, she will spend time with others studying literature, engineering, sociology, the health sciences.  At many universities she will have access to breadth subjects, curriculum that invites an encounter with different ways of viewing the world.


Our young student also spends time at a place of liberal learning, a campus with sculpture, architecture, music and the visual arts.  To be on campus is to experience culture first hand.  We know from exhibition catalogues [2 CLICKS] how brilliantly artefacts can be rendered digitally.  Yet people flock [CLICK] to an exhibition such as Napoleon at the National Gallery of Victoria.


Likewise, a campus experience [2 CLICKS] includes access to such treasures – the accumulated gifts and acquisitions of generations made available to current students.   [2 CLICKS]  At the University of Melbourne, for example, the Collection numbers 150,000 [2 CLICKS] pieces, including Indigenous art, an antiquities museum, and 31 specialist collections.  This is more material than the Ian Potter Museum of Art can display any time, though the curators [CLICK] do a fantastic job providing access.


On this romantic view, the campus is an expression of values broader than any particular course or degree.  It speaks to nineteenth century aspirations for character formed through university clubs and societies, for exposure to the sublime through collections and culture, a place where each student meets people and worlds beyond their experience.  For romantics, the university is a place of encounter, even in a digital world, a time of growth and formation, the start of tastes for a life-time.



4. Realities of higher education today: from campus to cloud


There is a counter view, a much more clear-eyed account of the role of the university campus. [2 CLICKS]  Not everyone is in love with the campus.  On a more critical reading, universities are not primarily places of encounter, or civilization.  They are practical places where you go for a sharply defined purpose – to get a qualification, preferably as quickly as possible.


On such a view, universities provide a service – lectures and tutorials leading to professional accreditation.  Life begins after graduation.


From the clear-eyed perspective, the possibilities of the digital age are revolutionary because they make the campus irrelevant.


Why listen to dull local lecturers when the best in the world are a click away?  Today, leading universities [2 CLICKS – VIDEO] make available their teaching materials, free and online: MIT, Harvard, Stanford. 


Consider this glimpse from Michael Sandel’s now famous on-line course on justice.  There are 12 on-line lectures available, a textbook by the lecturer, a vast array of supporting material on a dedicated website, and fora to debate the concepts raised in class.  Sandel has been teaching the course for 30 years, but only Harvard undergraduates could sign up.  Now, at any one time, about 15,000 people around the globe participate.   


Michael Sandel’s Justice is among the first MOOCs – a massive on-line open course.  MOOCs use web technology to link learners around a subject.  Some, such as Justice, are just for interest.  Others offer a capacity to enrol, complete assignments, and receive a certificate on successful completion.  Last year, Standard University offered a free course on artificial intelligence.  160,000 people signed up, many out-performing the Stanford students on campus also enrolled in the course.


How long before a Melbourne-based university offers students a chance to take an MIT class on-line but complete tutorials locally for credit?  When will the first Australian university stop teaching first year chemistry in-house, and instead assign students to an outstanding course delivered from in the cloud?  How long before universities stop being providers, and become brokers, gathering content from across the world and packaging it for local students?


The romantic view would argue the cloud makes possible greater depth and opportunity for tertiary study, part on-line and part in those excellent campus classrooms designed by Peter Jamieson.


Romantics stress that many adults join campus with still-hazy views about what they will study [2 CLICKS].  They may start in arts or science but over time focus in on a professional program that speaks to their developing interest in a field.  Youth is a time for exploration, and the ‘university’ means what it says – a place where all knowledge is represented, a chance to sample many fields before making life choices.


This is not just an Australian aspiration, but the vision of college life reflected in popular culture.  [2 CLICKS]  The campus should look like the Oxford of Brideshead Revisited, and the social life resemble an endless frat party among students who live on campus while studying at college: all the movies from The Paper Chase to The Social Network tell us so.


Yet the realist would note that young school leavers are no longer the norm.  Only 45 percent of students enrolled in their first degree at an Australian university are 18 years old.  Sadly, no campus can quite match the streets of Oxford filmed with a flattering soft lens.  And very few Australian students live on campus.  The typical Australian university student is older, living with parents or in their own home, studying part-time, and combining university life with earning enough income to complete their degree. 


And despite the media images, the same is true in the United States.  There most students also live at home.  Study is often deferred, taken part-time through institutions like Phoenix University – with 319,000 undergraduates all studying on-line, the largest higher education provider in America.


For many in the United States, as in Australia, a degree is simply a licence to work, not an invitation for self-exploration.  The premise of the [2 CLICK] comedy hit Community is older students who need tertiary qualifications, and so find themselves studying at an indifferent Californian community college.  They are keen to graduate as quickly as possible.  





5. Future possibilities


The on-line world speaks powerfully to aspirations for swift access to qualifications.  The institutions many students favour [2 CLICK] are customer-focused and likely for-profit, as is Phoenix University.  Phoenix has no traditional campuses with spires and a student union, though it does run more than 200 study centres across the United States. 


Phoenix does not support research or seek to add to the sum of human knowledge.  The Phoenix mission is precise, constrained and profoundly pragmatic.  As the Phoenix web site proudly states,


As champions for the working learner, our degree programs are built around your goals. You'll get the accredited education you deserve and the support you need.


This is admirable in its own terms - and a very long way from the romantic view of university life.


What will it mean as some or all universities shift from the production of knowledge to brokering services for students?




It will mean more choices for students, which seems inherently a good development.  All universities will offer accredited degrees, but not all will do research on campus, offer extension services, fund art galleries, or seek to influence character and culture.


And not all universities will be Australian.  Already US on-line educators have opened for business locally.  Carnegie-Mellon [CLICK] has a small campus in South Australia, New York University [CLICK] a new study abroad centre in Sydney.  Next year the for-profit Laureate group will open its first Australian university, Torrens, in Adelaide.


Other universities will use their global brand power to reach into Australia without opening local operations.  An Oxford, Harvard or MIT can compete on reputation, using MOOCs to offer accredited courses globally.


The idea of ‘brand’ sits uncomfortably.  Yet, in an on-line world, the most powerful existing university names begin with the advantage of name recognition and instant credibility.  Some will secure early mover advantage and become global players, fusing the until now separate domains of international education and on-line learning. 


Institutions [2 CLICKS] that translate their campus-based reputation for quality into an online presence give themselves an important stake in an internet world.  However, many find the sheer costs involved in curriculum development and delivery encourage collaborative ventures, as groups of like-minded universities join together to share online content.


This is already [CLICK] happening with initiatives such as ‘EdX’ involving MIT, Harvard and Berkeley, and ‘Coursera’, a consortium of 18 leading American and international universities, led by professors from Stanford with $16m of Silicon Valley venture capital.


Like all very new industries, it is not yet clear who will prosper.  A number of early ventures collapsed spectacularly, including on0line initiatives from Columbia University and the University of Melbourne.  Other promising projects, such as [2 CLICKS], were hailed as promising several years ago, but have not taken the world by storm [CLICK].


Bill Gates has observed that innovation cycles go through several stages.  Often new technologies announce themselves as substitutes for old ones. Only over time does it becomes clear the new invention is not really a replacement for the old, but just an enhancement:  a ‘bolt-on’ that makes the old machine work better.


We are still early in the innovation cycle, and unsure whether on-line learning will prove an enhancement to the traditional idea of the university, or a disruptive technology that levels all institutions that fail to adopt.


Some substantial change is inevitable.  A for-profit venture in the US called 2TOR is using Skype [2 CLICKS] to deliver high-quality teaching in collaboration with some high profile American universities, including Duke. 2TOR has over 100,000 enrolments in a Master of Teaching course, a high-quality professional degree.


2TOR proves that sophisticated technical material can be taught using new delivery channels.  Duke is extending its involvement in on-line education, and recently announced it will join the Coursera consortium.


Yet Duke University makes no moves to dismantle its home campus in Durham, with 14,000 students and strong research programs.  Universities do more than teach.  They are deeply committed to innovation and research [2 CLICKS] -- the discovery of new knowledge, new technologies.


As President Brodhead of Duke knows, innovation depends on clustering very many bright people on a campus.  Co-location [CLICK] counts.  As numerous studies show, bringing scientists, physicists, musicians and literary scholars together in one place - a university campus - is an ingredient in successful innovation.  This is why IT companies such as Google, Microsoft and Apple copy campus design, clustering engineers in facilities much like the universities where they originally trained.


So as universities have been building collaborate learning spaces, the trend in research too favours physical proximity - multi-disciplinary research facilities, translational institutes, and partnership buildings where research scholars and business work side by side.


While some universities may become a web presence, others believe their future remains on a campus, a place of encounter for students and scholars.  Duke may be busy populating the cloud, but back home in North Carolina the university invests in bricks and clicks.



6. Conclusion: View from a US economist


To close with our opening question: will the University become just a broker of knowledge, or remain a space and place dedicated to knowledge and innovation?


American economist Bryan Caplan [2 CLICKS] notes that Amazon killed Borders and asks:  will online education kill the campus?


Caplan identifies three common predictions [2 CLICKS] in the debate about the future of the university campus:


The Human Capital model [CLICK]  – on-line education can teach marketable skills just as effectively as physical universities in future, and much, much more cheaply.  Human capital seeks the best returns, and a swift on-line education provides better outcomes.


As a character says in Four Weddings and a Funeral : ‘University? Didn’t go myself, couldn’t see the point. What use are the novels of Wordsworth when you’re making a mint on the money markets?’


On the human capital model, the university campus is a dinosaur that will be driven quickly to destruction.


The ‘Status good’ model [CLICK] --  online education will be effective and competitive, but since young elites and their parents like universities as places to bond, campus will survive because it supplies a ‘status good’ that will remain in demand. 


On this logic we might expect fewer traditional universities, with campus preferred by the young, while on-line appeals to those already in the workforce and keen to improve their qualifications.


The Signalling model [CLICK] – Students signal a combination of intelligence, conscientiousness and reliability through completing university, and online education will never completely compete with all of these. 


Accordingly, online education will find its niche, but supplement rather than replace the traditional campus.


Caplan [CLICK] believes the signalling model will prevail.  He agrees online education will produce some good results, but on-line graduates will not carry the same prestige as those who spend time on campus.


It is a brave person who predicts profound change with confidence.  As Jim Morrison sang, just before that final visit to Paris,

“The future’s uncertain, and the end is always near.”


For some, long-anticipated change has arrived with the web and the MOOC.  The moment abounds with opportunity.  Communications technology [2 CLICKS] [VIDEO] answers the challenge of mass education, by reducing the cost of participation. 


Just witness the worldwide reach of the Kahn Academy, a free on-line service to help school students with basic concepts. Kahn demonstrates how the internet allows people in remote locations or disadvantaged situations access knowledge.


For the clear-eyed, online education will prove the great leveller [2 CLICK].  The web provides a welcome alternative to traditional classroom teaching in expensive, campus-based, institution of higher learning. 


Certainly e-learning will challenge a great industry in which Australia excels – international education.  It will provide new competition at home and abroad.  The web reduces international barriers to study, and allows institutions to operate [2 CLICKS] around the globe.  


Final word




Like many in the university sector, I am both delighted and terrified by the transformation of our world.


Access to the best lectures, the valuable treasures of libraries around the planet, the interplay of ideas from everywhere is profoundly exciting.  It can only enhance education, to the benefit of students and scholars.


Yet there are risks.  The traditional close relationship between a teacher and student, working with young people as they grasp and test new concepts, will be attenuated in an on-line world.  The partnership of minds that is teaching at its best will be harder to maintain.


I suspect too the web will shift students from citizens to consumers – making universities just another service, to be accessed on line like the bank or government department, rather than a place of co-production of knowledge through discussion, tutorial and independent research.


I suspect on-line learning will introduce much greater variety in higher learning – fewer campuses, more on-line courses, an economy in which people define their goals in going to university, and choose accordingly whether to spend time on the South Lawn, or happily work alone at home with a laptop.


A future with not one style of university but many, some public, many private.  Not one approach to learning but as numerous as the web allows. 


A world of infinite choice and very few certainties.


Ready or not, on-line learning is about to change our lives.



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