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THE Australian Universities Summit 2019: How can higher education in Australia remain forward thinking?

Author: Fiona Reay, Development Partnership Lead at FutureLearn

Alongside some of our Australian partners, FutureLearn attended the inaugural Times Higher Education Australian Universities Summit at The University of Sydney to learn more about securing a sustainable future for higher education and research. Here, Fiona Reay, Partnership Development Lead, unpacks three of the top talks that sparked discussion around recruitment, industry collaboration and contract cheating.

A call-to-arms to improve Australian university & industry collaboration

One of the main takeaways from the panel session at the THE Australian Universities Summit was that Australia remains relatively inexperienced in commercialising intellectual property that stems from the university sector, and needs to reposition its view to building longer-term relationships rather than pure transactions. While Australia ranks 23rd out of 35 OECD countries for industry engagement (and research and development spend appears to be tracking backwards), there are plenty of opportunities to bolster both discovery-led and mission-led collaborations. 

There have been recent success stories in the burgeoning Australian space and robotics industries. For example, the University of Sydney is one of only four Microsoft quantum computing academies in the world with its Sydney Nanoscience Hub. The airline, Qantas, recently worked with the Charles Perkins Health Centre at the university on the nutrition science of non-stop flights to London and how this would affect both passengers and crew. And Rio Tinto, the global mining group, developed new innovations with robotics in automated docks and mines with university research. 

Two key recommendations from the panel, to improve collaboration between Australian universities and industry were firstly to minimise ‘university speak’ and instead focus on sharp capabilities summaries, and secondly, to visibly open up the university to the public through glass-fronted “showcase windows” in high-traffic areas, and provide better digital maps, and driving instructions, so people can efficiently work out where they need to get to; the old campus map is not always fit for today’s modern world of Ubers and busy schedules and can result in lost CEOs trying to find the correct meeting room!

 There are clear benefits of better collaboration. Researchers get to work on great questions and help to solve real-world problems from NGOs or industry partners, and it can create a better sense of community and wider engagement in society as a whole for the university. The Times Higher Education panel also reminded university leaders that even by releasing their intellectual property, by way of course content, to outside commercial organisations, they would likely see the return in the longer-term with future endowments and PR opportunities, whilst also seeing their research and ideas make an impact on the world.

How can Australia remain competitive in international recruitment?

Three main ways the conference speakers suggested for Australian universities to remain competitive in international recruitment included promoting the quality of the student experience, strong employability outcomes, and building global connections. 

 Promoting the quality and modern student experience 

Peter Varghese, Chancellor of The University of Queensland, reiterated Australian education’s reputation for quality and its forward-thinking student experience that prepares people for life-long learning, as it instills critical-thinking and entrepreneurship skills from the get-go. He highlighted the risk that the university business model is addicted to growth. He suggested revenue pathways will need to come from different source markets like India and Indonesia to diversify from the current reliance on Chinese student intakes. (UQ currently only gets a third of its budget from government funding.) 

Strong employability outcomes

Alumni and word-of-mouth recommendations make a big difference for the reputation of Australian universities. Employability will always remain pivotal to international recruitment, and overseas students need their university experience, with real industry engagement and practical case studies, to be viable back home. 

Building global connection

Today’s student expects to become a global citizen and 40% of University of Sydney domestic students speak another language at home, so they are trying to use this to their advantage.Tania Rhodes-Taylor, VP External Relations at The University of Sydney, recommended universities build the social aspects and inter-connectivity amongst their communities so people can learn from each others’ experiences. While universities worldwide are scaling up, Australia needs to invest in pedagogies to make ‘truly international experiences’ on campus and online. This requires leading from the front with strong cross-cultural competency in educators. Scaling ways to engineer social connection into the student experience is crucial, and if universities don’t, Rhodes-Taylor warned there is a real risk they are failing to prepare their students for the modern world.

Research on cheating from Turnitin & UNSW 

The current trend of suggesting 6% of assessments are fraudulent shows its under-reported nature, as double that (12% of students) admit to cheating. While two out of three teachers know an assessment may not be a genuine submission, only 7% reported it as half of them believe it’s impossible to prove. Cath Ellis, Associate Dean (Education) at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), called on the sector to work better as a community to reduce widespread cheating, and for universities themselves to provide more feedback to technology providers to improve our assessment tools. Specific recommendations from Ellis included placing guidance and warning messages throughout the assessment process, screening for ‘copy and paste’ style patterns or indeed different formatting patterns on a submission, and for course directors to talk to a student in the first instance of suspected cheating rather than feeling they need to make a formal allegation. Early intervention and informal discussion can go a long way in modelling the desired behaviour. 

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