Co-design and co-production the future for university curriculums

Co-design and co-production between universities, the business community and students is essential in educating the future workforce, a panel has told a CEDA audience in Sydney.

Speaking at Graduates for the future of work, the event brought together the Vice-Chancellors from the University of Technology Sydney, Western Sydney University, The University of Newcastle, The University of Sydney and University of Wollongong.

“We’re starting with a new curriculum from next year,” University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Dr Michael Spence said.

“We started with a blank piece of paper and said, ‘what kind of skills will you need to be the person that tells the machine what to do, not the person whose job is replaced by the machine.’

Dr Spence said there were four elements including a structured degree, a major from outside of the discipline, international experience and real-world practice. 

“You need to bring it all together. And for me the most exciting thing and what we have been doing a lot of experimenting with, is what we call an extended real-world problem-solving experience,” he said. 

“We’re not outsourcing the teaching, we’re outsourcing the problems. Getting the community organisations and businesses onto campus presenting a real-world problem on which they are working, putting students into multi-disciplinary teams, and getting them with academics to come up with solutions.

“Both give students the opportunity to know that their learning is real; it’s not just out of a text book, to work with others in a multidisciplinary context and to see how their thinking can be applied.”

Western Sydney University, Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Barney Glover discussed how co-design was being reflected in their campus.

“You’ll hear a lot about flexibility, about curriculum reform, about co-design…that we’re not on our own as academics designing the curriculum…we’re working with our students to design the curriculum of the future,” he said.

“The most exciting thing I find about universities now compared to a decade or more ago, is we have some extraordinary intellectual property coming from our students, our under-graduate students.

“We as universities are doing a remarkable job to respond to that and I think you also see it in the way we are designing our teaching spaces. 

“These are very different.

“We are doing this at Western Sydney in our vertical campuses. We need to look at the way we engage with business and the community. Creating ways which are very different environments of learning – formally and informally – and certainly not in lecture theatres.” 

Speaking on working with business, University of Wollongong, Vice-Chancellor Professor Paul Wellings said Australia’s geography mitigates against some models that have been put in place in Europe for example.

Professor Wellings said these are where the curriculum is designed with a company, and the course is slightly longer, involving internships during holiday periods. 

“They skip the graduate programs and go straight into the workforce at the end of an extended degree,” he said.

“It’s a great model for cohorts of students coming through. 

“One of the issues here when I have talked to companies about it, is that geography mitigates that. 

“If you do that in Sydney, how easy is it to replicate in Melbourne or Perth. These are very expensive models, and what’s the argument to do it in one location but then not do it in one of the other major capital cities of the Commonwealth. 

“I think we have to have a different kind of conversation with the private sector here about how to create some of those co-produced activities.”

University of Technology Sydney, Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Attila Brungs said work also needs to be done with businesses in the post-graduate phase to develop life learning and ensure the workforce is kept up to date as new challenges arise to solve employment issues.

Lifelong learning essential

“Building a mindset of lifelong learning (is important) because one of the key things that’s going to happen, is your job is going to change, more than any other time in history it will continue to change,” Professor Brungs said.

“If you build resilience and adaptiveness, no matter what skills they get now if they have the skills to be able to change and retrain throughout the rest of their lives, that’s critical.

“We’ve had some 12,000 of our 40,000 students in the last couple of years go through an entrepreneurial, innovation experience – starting their own company, working in a start-up.

“The educational outcome is better if they fail on the first one…because they will learn a lot…the skills they learn from that, they can go to some of the biggest companies in the country and they can be these wonderful, adaptive, flexible employees that can drive the future of each of those companies.”

Professor Wellings said there were challenges in developing these skills.

“On one hand, we have businesses now saying we would like people to be job ready, and philosophically you’ve got people like me saying actually our role is to create people who are career ready rather than just functional for the first job they go to,” he said.

“It’s the skillsets for life that I think we are challenged to deliver and I’m not sure that we’ve got enough co-production happening with business on curriculum or enough recognition of the skillsets of our graduates, over and above the certificate they get when they leave university.”

Higher education sector not immune from disruption

The panel also discussed how higher education is not immune from disruption.

“The challenge to our business model over the next decade…(is) where we have the relevancy of a degree being questioned. It’s questioned today and will be more so into the future,” Professor Glover said.

“Universities are going to change. We’re going to develop new business models and I think there will be failures, and there will be successes but it’s going to be a very interesting landscape a decade from now in higher education.”

The University of Newcastle, Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Caroline McMillen said the higher education workforce will be challenged.

“Because the higher education professional workforce, as with many workforces, is caught in this apparent seismic shift in what the needs of our graduates and therefore students will be…the discomfort in having to change what we have been doing to something new and different, is the same discomfort in any sector, and in any workforce,” she said. 

“We have to have people leave who have been with us maybe 10, 20 years whose jobs are no longer part of the moving forward, because there has been this shift, this disruption.

“We have to work much harder to think what the higher educational professional of the future is, the support they then give the organisation in terms of navigating its change, how they’re globally referenced…and how in terms we skill and reskill those professionals…when we are trying to face a rapidly moving world.” 

Future of work in the regions

Professor McMillen also spoke about the future of work from a regional perspective. 

“We’re in a region…that is a touchstone of what is happening to Australia’s economy. In the Hunter region and down the central coast, you see the profound effects of the economic transition,” she said.

“The role of any university is to meet that challenge.” 

Professor McMillen said that today’s generation must have a lifestyle that is as good or better than the last generation based on Australia’s productivity. 

“That is a very tough challenge in a region in which higher education participation has been relatively low, and in which the buffer has been in the mining and manufacturing industries which are now no longer going to be able to provide that basis for the local economy,” she said. 

“If we get it right, we get it right for Australia and we have taken the view that as an institution we hold absolutely that equity of access.

“But now what you have to do is respond to those disruptors, and really being able to take that view…that every one of our students, has that opportunity to engage in global mobility, the ability to develop their global career chain, their global network…to create the future of leadership back in Australia where absolutely entrepreneurship is at the heartland.”