I start by acknowledging the Gadigal of the Eora Nation, the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and their elders past and present and any First Nations people here today.
Good afternoon. I took on this topic with some trepidation and on reflection the title should have ended in a question mark. “Partnerships to deliver higher education on a global scale?” I apologise at the start for posing more questions than I provide answers during this talk.
Most of our universities share a wish to play a part in shaping a more just global society. To genuinely do so we need to find ways to share our expertise with people in emerging economies and help build the knowledge, skills and people capacity of communities needed for their development.
It will be obvious to most of you just how critical educational opportunity is for individuals and societies. I have seen that in my roles as a doctor, researcher and university leader and you will have seen it in many other ways.
I agree wholeheartedly with Indian economist Surjit Bhalla who describes education as the ‘new wealth of nations’. An asset which once attained can never be taken away. We need to ensure more people attain that asset. Sadly, at present there is a mismatch between where the need and demand for higher education is globally, and where the expertise resides.
According to the UN, by 2040, it is projected there will be 800 million people aged between 18 and 23 college-aged people. 74% of the expected growth to 2035 will be concentrated in ten countries – Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, Uganda and Tanzania.
East Asia & the Pacific will have highest student demand, increasing to 148.8 million by 2030 and 257.6 million by 2040. South & West Asia follows increasing to 160.4 million by 2040. Importantly, sub-Saharan Africa is expected to continue to experience strong growth in demand as more and more countries in the region make advances in strengthening their national systems of education and attain higher completion rates in secondary education. North America & Western Europe is expected to experience a decline in its share of global enrolments from 17.5% in 2015 to 10.7% by 2030 and 7.4% by 2040.
But as we all know from the latest QS or Times Higher Education rankings, the top 10 universities are all in Europe or the US, and at least three quarters of the top 100 are in Europe, North America or Australia whilst the demand for higher education is by far the greatest in middle and low-income countries.
Globally our sector is still rooted in a strongly Anglo-centric order, where the top universities tend to be concentrated in the developed West.
International travel for education cannot deal with the scale of the need and demand. According to Austrade, Australia’s onshore international education sector is forecast to grow from 650,000 enrolments today to almost 1 million by 2025. That is an important contribution but it is not feasible for most of those seeking the opportunities of a higher education.
There are some encouraging developments. The relatively-new Asian Universities Alliance, which was launched in 2017 by Tsinghua University in China – the first wholly Asian university grouping – was formed to ‘advance a distinctly Asian perspective in global education circles’. And with the rapid increase in scale and capacity of Chinese universities the imbalance between where the students are and where the quality education resides is starting to be addressed in that part of the world.
But growing student need and demand in South East Asia, and in Africa pose more of a challenge.
Just as I finished preparing this talk this morning I saw the announcement of the U7 Alliance which is an international alliance of university presidents who will I quote “engage both in discussion and in concrete action by making commitments that universities may take to address the most pressing global challenges in a multilateral context. It is the very first alliance of university presidents aimed at structuring and advancing their role as global actors across the multilateral agenda.”
In the context of this alliance, university presidents will take stock of their unique civic and social responsibility as global actors, and pledge to take concrete action within their institutions for a local, regional and global impact. The founding members of the U7 Alliance have agreed to meet yearly for an annual summit to discuss a common agenda and establish a space for universities’ action in today’s global landscape.
Initiated in context of the French presidency of the G7 in 2019 and seeks to promote the role of universities in the multilateral agenda. The first U7 Alliance summit will be held in France in July. G7 countries will attend and special invitations have been extended to institutions in 14 countries worldwide (Morocco, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Australia, India, South Korea, Singapore, Mexico, Argentina). 45+ universities representing over 2 million students in the world. The proposals will be presented to President Macron, as part of the broader G7 discussions in Biarritz.
I am sure that the U7 summit will ask the question as to whether universities in developed countries can partner together and with emerging universities in less developed countries to help overcome the inadequacy of the current model of student mobility.
The answer, I believe, is yes and many universities are already engaged in doing so in a raft of ways. The more challenging question is how and what format should these partnerships take.
There is no doubt big partnerships like U21 or APRU can work well by creating powerful networks to tap into but they become unwieldy, without robust governance and tend to be quite loose. Smaller, mission-focussed alliances can have more agility than the large groupings.
But whatever the size or configuration, the more universities join together to find solutions to the grand challenges of our time – whether it is global development through education, the climate emergency, migration, conflict, inequality – the more trust we build with individuals, with governments and with each other. And the more we enter those partnerships with a generosity of spirit, the better the results and the greater the impact.
You may know of some good examples of effective partnerships in this space – if you do please do let me know because my search didn’t reveal many. One interesting approach I did come across to overcoming obstacles to global engagement on education was from The University of Arizona. UA has set up micro-campuses which are physically situated with partner universities in locations including Vietnam, China, Peru, Indonesia and Jordan.
These micro-campuses share infrastructure; offer courses taught in-person by a UA or local academics; allow partner university students the chance to study at the UA main campus in Tucson or any location within the UA Global Micro-campus Network; and set fees based on local market rates. UA has reported that the co-location also acts as an incubator of collaborative projects between faculties and between researchers. Importantly it also builds the skills and capability of academics and researchers in developing areas.
Which brings me to the need to increase capacity and capability and the use of new technologies.
There is no doubt individual universities are doing great work in various disadvantaged or remote regions of the world. I have spent a lot of time working in health in East Africa in Uganda over the last 12 years and as an example, I am proud that the university I lead, UNSW Sydney, partners with Gulu University in northern Uganda an area recovering from dreadful strife and civil war. We are partnering to raise the quality of learning and teaching by training academic staff, running a student exchange program and through a women and children’s health initiative. It is an absolute joy to see the benefits for students and staff from both Sydney and Gulu in this partnership. It is changing the way they see the world, opening up new opportunities, building relationships and building badly needed capacity.
We also have a presence in Myanmar where our team works with local scholars and policy thinkers on constitutional law, as the country makes the transition from military rule to a democracy.
There will be equally worthy examples of engagement by universities across the country. In fact, Universities Australia reported that, in 2018, Australian universities had more than 10,000 institution-to-institution agreements outside Australia – covering such areas as academic and research collaboration, staff and student exchange and other mobility programs.
But the fact is that student mobility in many emerging economies is so financially constrained that any requirement to travel away from the community is not affordable nor practical. So as important and worthwhile as these small scale ventures are, with such huge demand for education services, we need to look at what we can do on a larger scale – be more ambitious in our goals and more innovative in how we reach them.
Perhaps, the challenge can be solved through a combination of carefully designed partnerships and the use of new technology.
This poses a huge challenge that many of us struggle with. But, if we truly believe education is a tool for bringing prosperity and equality to our world, we must find ways to make it as accessible as possible. We should strive for Australian universities to reach many millions of students and working people, through high quality distance learning with very different cost points and timescales to those we are now used to. As a small step in this direction UNSW has just agreed with our MOOC partner, FutureLearn, to position UNSW MOOCs with Amity University.
One component of the challenge is of course that online platforms can only be useful if the student has access to the equipment and infrastructure necessary to support the delivery of the courses.
We also need to cater to those who are without connectivity or else we perpetuate what is known as the Matthew effect . Where those who already have some level of privilege – which may just be that they own an iPad or Smartphone for example – are more likely to benefit first.
We should take advantage of local knowledge – those who have to deal with the reality of operating in areas which may not have electricity let alone the internet. Many of whom have channelled their energy and talent into some phenomenal innovations. One such innovation is a platform called BRCK, a connectivity device developed in Nairobi by the same people who devised Ushahidi, a platform which grew out of post-election violence in Kenya in 2008 to allow marginalised a way to bring global attention to their plight. BRCK then saw the need to develop a device that met the needs of Africa and its connectivity issues and teamed it with the MOJA free public Wi-Fi network. A great partnership to leverage for those seeking to deliver educational services.
There are also devices which completely skip the need for electricity and wifi – the MobiStation, created by UNICEF, is a classroom in a suitcase case containing a projector, laptop and speaker and which is solar-powered.
And thinking beyond university-to-university collaboration, we are wise to use the reach and multiplier effects offered by emergent technologies and partnerships with educational institutions, NGOs and governments. Government partners can be pivotal in bringing education on a large scale through scholarships – an effective way to support student mobility as Australia well knows, having implemented the Colombo Plan in the 1950s and laying the groundwork for Australia’s strong ties with its Asia-Pacific neighbours.
Today, we are seeing scholarships being used to great effect in Africa by the Chinese government. Africa is a region with a high proportion of young people – estimated to be 41% of a total population of 1.2 billion. With China’s universities now offering a high standard of education, it is attracting some 60,000 African students a year. In 2003, that number was fewer than 2,000.
There are enormous incentives for the students with the overwhelming majority on full scholarships – free tuition, free accommodation and a stipend of 3,000 yuan ($441) a month. If we are to deliver education globally, we have to work with a completely different mindset.
And so to the final part of my talk. What types of partnership are needed to rise to the scale of the challenge?
Australian universities can not only deliver excellence in education, but we have some of the greatest minds available to work on the challenges of remoteness and connectivity and our networks offer natural avenues for cross-discipline, cross-sector, cross-border collaboration. The sharing of knowledge and ideas across oceans is one of those rare endeavours where our geographic location does not present a tyranny of distance. We need to be creative in bringing together new partners or taking a current partnership and making it fit for purpose.
The PLuS alliance, was created very much with this in mind. The acronym stands for P Phoenix, L London and S Sydney bringing together Arizona State University in Phoenix, Kings College London and UNSW Sydney. The partners each have strong reputations for the quality of their research and education in their own countries and have developed capacity in online education. One of our aspirations is for this alliance to deliver high quality online education on a large scale to parts of the world where it is not currently available.
Delivering this sort of objective is enormously challenging and immediately raises more questions:
- How can we make sure that the online material is of the highest quality, covering the production costs and distribution costs. Who is going to pay for it – governments, charities, industry, international NGOs?
- The quality question depends on shelf life and intent. Learners now want resources that compress in time their learning. There is also a persuasive view that the production quality is not really the issue; it’s more the relevance, timing, usefulness, and extendibility of the concepts/ideas contained in a given resource. Brilliance in bad light but good audio is better than mediocrity on a multimodal greenscreen.
- Could this model of education come together in distributed partnerships involving networks of universities which enable students on the same degree program or course to dip in and out of face to face through a series of linked campuses.
- I understand from experts in this area that it is feasible to link this together through team optimisation protocols connected by communication platforms that use a follow-the-sun development cycle for tasks, assignments and other teaching activities.
- The end point could be networks of 5-20 universities crossing 4-6 continents, all offering an integrated learning curriculum with flexibility for local needs and offering lifelong learning to millions of students, largely online but able to dip in to campuses around the world for face to face experiences and hands on practical learning.
- That raises even more issues:
- What shifts in institutional culture/mindsets will be required to establish and maintain such a distributed learning network?
- What technological advances (learning management systems, repositories, e-portfolio’s, analytics) will be required to truly personalise learning?
- What distributed infrastructure will be required to transform the concept of ‘learning campuses’ in the same way other disruptions have reconceptualised our understanding of ‘transport’ or ‘accommodation’?
- How will digital labs replace actual labs in this approach to learning?
- How will ‘lifelong learning’ fit into our current understanding of ‘work-life balance’ or future conceptualisation of ‘work-life fusion’ by the five distinct generations that co-exist at any given time?
I apologise again for posing more questions than answers. Our global higher education community is at an early stage in addressing these complex challenges but the objective is deliverable. I predict that during the next decade we will see altruistic, well organised partnerships linking universities across the globe to deliver the highest quality, online and blended learning to hundreds of millions of people on a lifelong basis. At its best students anywhere in the world will be able to access a combination of online learning and access to a network of face to face campuses to dip in and out of. Instead of being used by 50 to 100000 students for 3-4 years our campuses will be used by millions of students for short periods throughout their careers and lives
In summary, there are a number of ways partnerships can deliver higher education on a global scale:
1. By partnering with universities in developing regions to deliver education for their students, jointly with their academics and using their infrastructure
2. By building capacity and capability through academic and student exchange
3. By tapping into the local knowledge of institutions, NGOs and governments which have already found solutions to problems of operating in remote and disadvantaged regions
4. By finding platforms capable of delivering online courses that are accessible to all
5. By building ambitious new global partnerships and alliances able to deliver quality at scale on a lifelong basis
Because universities are trusted and are seen as neutral agencies for active, positive change, we are well placed to work with communities to develop their education, social and economic capacity. We educate. We research. We impart knowledge and we preserve and protect knowledge. And providing higher education on a global scale reinforces our mission to be true servants of society.
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