Why can’t universities move with the times?

Anna Rawhiti-Connell asks why the enormous amount of reinvention and innovation that’s taken place in other sectors has passed universities by

Chief Justice Dame Helen Winklemann made the striking observation last November that socio-economic diversity among New Zealand’s current crop of judges was reflective of many of them going to law school in the 70s and 80s, when there were ‘fewer barriers to education’.

By barriers, I assume she means fees and by socio-economic diversity she means judges who grew up working-class or, God forbid, in poverty. Her comments were made in the context of her concern that this self-termed ‘modest’ diversity was at risk, with judges increasingly coming from "the same narrow part of society".

I say striking not because the insight itself was revelatory but because in that one statement, she drew a very clear line between political vision and policy decisions and the very real implications they have 40 years on. Stumbling across such a nuanced reflection on past decision-making felt like a treat. I need to get a life, but politicians often talk about bold visions for the future, yet, yoked by the three-year election cycle, they rarely walk back from that bold future to articulate the course of action that must be taken to realise it.

Winklemann’s thoughts are a reflection on tertiary education as much as they are on the diversity of the bench. Tertiary education is an environment I’ve become familiar with again after returning to study last year.

I’ll confess to being anxious about turning up to my first lecture. I wanted to project a very specific air. One that said ‘Yes I am an adult student but not THAT adult student. I do not require friends but I am also quite cool and will have a beer with you. If you want. I mean, I don’t care.’ It was a lot to ask of one outfit.

This was legacy anxiety, a hangover from my first stint as a student in the late 90s and early 2000s where I was actually hungover a lot. I am happy to confirm that has abated, thanks in part to spending most of this semester turning up to Zoom lectures in leggings and ugly knitwear.

The rapid change to my study experience this year hasn’t just prompted a change in my approach to dressing for class. It’s crystallised some observations about the lack of change in my experience as a student since I was last enrolled.

Up until lockdown, I was expected to turn up at a set time for lectures, which I juggled around work. Lecture formats haven’t changed a great deal since I bunked half of them in 1999. I can only take papers from my university and I sit tests and write essays in much the same way I did 20 years ago. This seems a marked contrast to what I understand about the changes in the primary and secondary education sectors over the same time frame. It feels as if the enormous amount of disruption, reinvention, and innovation that’s taken place in other sectors has passed universities by.

I’m not suggesting we should all study from Apple University doing the same, standardised course across the globe. There is much value in academic autonomy and institutional independence. There is not one way to teach something like social psychology, we do not want homogenous thinking, nor do I want to lose what’s valuable about communal learning experiences. I also appreciate other people don’t necessarily learn the same way I do.

I accept completely individualised study programmes based on your preference and timetable are probably a pipedream, but I would like more flexibility. Why can’t I make up the credits required to complete my qualification from a variety of courses across different universities? I’ve probably just caused someone an administration-related aneurism but should it be an impossibility? If we were putting tertiary education on the table for reinvention in the same way many other industries have had to reinvent themselves, surely flexibility and choice would be part of that reinvention.

Most tertiary institutions switched to full online teaching during Covid Levels 2-4. Several are retaining a ‘blended style of learning’ next semester while Waikato University is doing online lectures only. Many students are rightly asking questions about the quality of the experience they’re paying for and why they haven’t been consulted about it. Personally, online lectures suit me and my only questions are why the flexibility it offers hasn’t been built into study before now, and what impact it has on the quality of my education.

Students are also asking about the fairness of only some institutions applying grade bumps to reflect the impact of the pandemic on academic performance. This has real implications for people who want to compete for the precious few scholarships that exist or apply for graduate and post-graduate programmes at other institutions.

I find it ironic that the student voice has weakened over the time that we’ve become ‘consumers’; a lot of us borrowing heavily to pay for our educations since the introduction of user pays in 1990. Being a consumer, as distasteful as that may sound to academic purists, is arguably a stronger position from which to have a voice heard, yet it appears there’s been a complete lack of consultation on large scale change to the product we pay for. Many will point to the removal of compulsory student union membership in 2011 as part of the problem.

These questions are important, not only because we should have and recognise the student voice in a world where collaboration and co-design are increasingly common,  but because the decisions being made now about how our institutions educate us and how we access that education have, as Winkelmann neatly points out, real impact on what workforces of the future look like. Not just in terms of the diversity of that workforce but on the shape of it. Do we, by way of innocent and salient example, need six law schools in this country?

The current Government has talked a lot about the future of work and about education as the bridge to ensuring people have work in the future, but there still seems to be a chasm between a vision of the future and how we will get there. There’s not a single person in Government who wants something else to add to their laundry list of things that need to change, but rapid change has already happened and more is on its way. It has forced some innovation and reinvention within the tertiary sector but may also cause retrenchment. Before we stumble on, we need some clear lines between what we think the future of education and work will look like and the decisions we’re making now, and the student voice must be part of those considerations.  

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