Smaller classes and critical thinking the future of universities says new Uni of Adelaide VC
Posted : Friday, August 24, 2012
Traditional universities will need to offer a premium teaching
model to compete in a networked computing age in which many courses
can be delivered cheaply online, says the University of Adelaide's
new vice chancellor, Professor Warren Bebbington.
Professor Bebbington told a forum hosted by the CEDA in Adelaide
that two phenomena, online learning and the rise of the natural
sciences, would change the teaching focus of universities.
"It is my belief that much that we find taught in traditional
universities today is going to change because codifiable knowledge
can be delivered more cheaply and efficiently in other ways,"
Professor Bebbington said.
Australian universities would need to address the following
- An increasing focus on laboratory science in universities
throughout the world;
- Competition from cheaper online learning;
- A domestic shift in demand away from humanities and teaching
- A downward shift in international students' demand for
Australian business courses; and
- The need for a university ranking system that includes
teaching, campus life and a range of disciplines rather than a
single focus on natural science research.
Already, high profile universities such as Harvard and MIT
provide open access online to many courses, making it possible to
get a certificate of completion free of charge, Professor
"Traditional research-based universities like the one I am from
will need to turn into a premium space of active experiment and
pedagogical learning," he said.
"They will need to focus on uncodifiable experiential learning
that can only be imparted in person: the individual discovery
project and the skills that arise from it, of analysis, of problem
solving, of communication in extended written prose."
He said universities would need to be clever in cross
subsidising to ensure that all students had access to the measured,
reasoned discourse of academia. While leading US universities had
smaller class sizes, Australian staff to student ratios had slipped
from 8:1 to 20:1.
"My message at the University of Adelaide in our present
strategic planning process has been that a research university
needs to put research back at the centre of teaching," Professor
"There needs to be a way so that every student in every course
in every year can have some experience of the small seminar where
they work at close quarters with a tenured staff member on an
individual project to develop the skills and critical thinking
analysis that we would like all of our graduates to have."
Student consumers would also need access to better information
about university teaching than that currently provided by the
university ranking system.
"Forty per cent of students around the world now choose their
university based on rankings and most are choosing an undergraduate
teaching program," Professor Bebbington said.
"But the rankings do not measure undergraduate teaching
programs, nor do they measure student life nor do they measure the
campus setting. They measure research outputs - predominantly in
the natural sciences.
"If consumer advice about cars was this bad there would be
"What we all need and what we will all benefit from is a ranking
system that is subdivided so students can choose a list of teaching
universities, or a list of research universities or universities
that focus on particular themes or regional needs. And a
methodology that includes the full range of university disciplines,
not just the natural sciences."
Professor Bebbington said Australia had been poorly served by
the decision to unify vocational learning institutions with
universities under the Dawkins reforms in the 1980s, which required
all universities to be defined by their research.
"I think we've got to get to a point where university missions
can be accepted by government as on a continuum; universities can
decide where on the continuum between research and teaching they
are going to locate," he said.
On the question of whether a merger of South Australian
universities was likely, Professor Bebbington said there was little
evidence that universities could capture economies of scale
"Mergers are no fun. You take the separate cultures and
histories of two places, you put them together, it takes not five
years, not 10 years - it takes a generation to produce a new merged
culture," he said.
"Having been through a number of mergers, I've yet to see any
economies of scale because universities don't scale up well. Yes,
you can save a lot of money in a university if you double the class
size, have lectures of 1000 students instead of 500…. That is
precisely the opposite direction I think universities should
The University of Adelaide will launch a 10-year strategic plan
next year aiming to re-engage with the public - its original
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