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 policy issues:
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 Bebbington said.
"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 Bebbington said.
"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 uproar.
"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 effectively.
"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 go."
The University of Adelaide will launch a 10-year strategic plan next year aiming to re-engage with the public - its original vision.