Ben Wildavsky has a message for Australian universities.  He’s the author of The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities are Reshaping the World, just out from Princeton U. Press. He’s keen to promote the benefits of free trade in higher education, not least of which is that “knowledge is not a zero sum game”, and that if we create more of it in one country, we don’t lose it in another.

Somehow this is calling to mind the joke about what emigrating New Zealanders do to the average IQ in both Australia and New Zealand.

In both cases, the answer to the riddle involves mobility, deriving from a lovely bit of maths called the Will Rogers phenomenon.  If more of us, and more of our students, and more of our ideas, move around global systems more freely, there will be more of everything for everyone. All the boats will rise.

Arun Sharma, DVC (Research and Commercialisation) at QUT, sees some similar opportunities in the open source movement, although he’s less careful to flatter us. Open source initiatives “in the education space” he writes, “could organise into a global open repository of continuously improving learning material and lecture videos with real-time quality and reputation ratings. And, if the software sector is any guide, the quality of this content could be superior to that produced by most universities, let alone individual academics.”

So that’s that, then.

Look, I think we’re comfortable with the idea that quality and reputation are connected, and we spend hours in committee refining the processes that make us more competitive in the race for both. And few individual academics expect to compete with rich media content developers in terms of the technical standards of the online and in-class materials we generate at our desktops—we’re happy with a Prezi that doesn’t cause the room to spin, and a video clip in a format that’s sufficiently backwards compatible to work with lecture theatres equipped three years ago.

So we’re not professional publishers, and we don’t hang our reputational hat on this particular hook. But we do have a few daring thoughts of our own about what makes for superior quality content. Quality content is tailored to the context where we teach, and generated in dialogue with our students and their questions. Continuous improvement involves staying connected with new ideas, recently published research, and changing paradigms. And for some of us teaching cultural research skills in the new creative economies, it means staying on top of the news cycle and including what happened this morning in our lecture content. It’s so fresh, it’s still jumping in the net.

But if we look closely at Sharma’s vision for what might attract students to one university rather than another, once the global free trade in anywhere-anytime content has removed content altogether from the decision-making process, it turns out that teaching doesn’t figure at all:

The differentiating propositions for universities will continue to be what they have always been: a degree from a good brand, high levels of pastoral care and a student cohort with the promise of membership in influential social and professional networks.

What’s more (if you still need convincing) in the future global market flattened by open source content, students themselves will be managing the timing and convenience of their own learning, leaving us free to run their local universities as social media platforms, with innovation “facilitating interaction at all waking hours.”  That’s looking suspiciously like round-the-clock pastoral care to me; and most of us working online already know that this isn’t necessarily the utopian vision sketched here, particularly in terms of our own work-life balance.

So it seems to me that the converging visions of global trade liberalisation and content outsourcing expose each other’s limitations, especially for higher education systems in smaller economies. Put bluntly, trade liberalisation rarely confers equal benefit on all parties, and as UNESCO has tirelessly pointed out, it does very little to sustain diversity in areas that perhaps ought to be treated as exempt from trade negotiations: culture and education.

We already struggle to find Australian textbooks in small disciplines, because Australian textbooks can’t reach large enough international markets. And we’re now wrestling with the problem of protecting research on Australian topics from metrics that privilege international impact. Before we all sign up to the idea that the course content of the future will also be driven by the open source agendas of the world’s most powerful institutions, and chosen by real-time popularity among the least experienced participants, we need to back away from the Kool-Aid for a moment and think about global cultural diversity as the differentiating proposition we might really want to protect.

2 Responses

  • The thing that strikes me, interests me, and worries me is that academic risk is almost always transformed into a question about quality: quality teaching & learning, and quality research. There appears to be a shortcut that leads from consideration of risk to the conclusion that the management of quality mitigates risk. Keep the quality of your product high and there is nothing to worry about.
    Given the propensity for academics to fiercely defend their fiefdoms from administrative interference, I can’t help but feel that the quality = academic risk mitigation formula is itself a risk for higher education. Quality becomes a means of competition management, ordering the marketplace into hierarchies of quality (and this doesn’t consider the issue of how quality is measured and how problematic that can be), and thence trusting the marketplace to ensure the distribution of demand according to quality (got quality, got students).
    Similarly reputation is managed by quality: quality staff, quality management processes and (hopefully) quality product all ensure reputation management. Ditto internationalisation, international student demand is (by virtue of the marketplace nexus between quality of product/service and price of product/service) enhanced and protected by quality. It follows that financial performance, research growth, and key strategic staff are also built, to a greater or lesser extent, on the issue of quality as a result of the interdependence of these issues (no strategic staff= no growth of research; no international student demand= no financial performance; etc.)
    A cynic might suggest that building so much upon such an amorphous and subjective thing as “quality” is to build a house of cards. I am not a cynic, not yet anyway, and I may be missing something fairly important but my thought is that there is something missing. If we think about the impact of a (perceived) loss of quality then it is going to affect every single aspect of University operations, and if we can see that quality is the foundation stone for the management of the strategic risks (all of them to my eye) then quality is the black swan. Quality is the trope that we deploy to mitigate the risks and if that deployment should be ineffective all the risks come into play

  1. Open is as open does | Music for Deckchairs  October 20, 2011

    […] As I’ve mentioned before, it’s a bit less clear how this educational trade liberalisation agenda will benefit smaller cultural economies like Australia’s, but we are certainly being sold the vision of a leveled playing field for content producers. Now anyone can lay out their wares in the same marketplace of ideas as MIT—even if the institution most likely to do this in a way that attracts the punters will still be MIT, reputation being the currency that it is. […]

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