Leveraging 'People' Power of Sustainability

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Professor Alan R Nankervis

Professor of Human Resource Management

School of Management, Curtin Business School, 
Curtin University, Australia


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The crisis in higher education: Will universities survive?

Higher education globally is at the crossroads. Once regarded as the one of the largest contributors to national economic and social progress, especially in developed countries but more recently in emerging Asian nations as well; its ability to attract the best teaching and research talent, to recruit high quality students both locally and internationally, and to provide industry and government with knowledgeable and appropriately-skilled graduates, is under serious threat. Higher education has been perceived by prospective students as the preferred route to employment; by employers, as a rich source of flexible and adaptive talent within the Fourth Industrial Revolution; and by governments, as a crucial component of economic growth and development.

However, a series of external and internal factors threaten to undermine the foundations on which this success is based. The external factors include the increasingly competitive market for students between countries in the Asian region, which is likely to be exacerbated by the formation of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC); the opening up of local higher education markets to international and private universities; online and Mass Open Online Courses (MOOCs); volatile and fluctuating currency exchange rates; and security issues such as terrorism.

Internal factors include the future ability of universities to attract and retain knowledgeable, skilled, experienced and motivated academics who are able to design, present, and evaluate higher education programs which are internationally-recognised, industry-relevant, and which truly engage students. The attraction of high quality students is also an important issue, as entry standards (reportedly) drop and graduate outcomes become arguably less responsive to the demands of the changing labour market. Thus, the three big challenges facing the higher education sector are:

The attraction and retention of high quality and engaged teaching (and research) academics
The continued attraction of local and international students
The provision of academic programs which ensure that graduates possess  both conceptual and applied knowledge, skills and capabilities.

Challenges in attracting & retaining high quality academics
With respect to the first challenge, despite the fact that the majority of their income derives from local and international student fees, and their promotional programs which emphasise teaching and learning as their priorities, in reality most universities value and reward research and publication more highly than teaching. Most Australian, and many regional, universities utilise contract or casual staff to undertake mass teaching, often under quite precarious employment conditions; and their diminishing cohorts of tenured academics naturally prefer to undertake research, as it is the  route to future career opportunities. Some universities have explicitly delineated ‘teaching only’ and ‘research only’ academic pathways, where the former leads to very few rewards or vertical career paths. Previous relevant work experience or ongoing industry consultancy projects are seldom highly valued, despite their obvious benefits with respect to the currency of lecturers’ knowledge and skills, and their ability to communicate these to their students.

Consequently, lecturers with little or no practical experience in their fields and minimal contact with contemporary industry developments; together with heavy face-to-face and online teaching and marking workloads, little recognition and few rewards, are not surprisingly often disenchanted and demotivated. Given the relatively uncompetitive salaries provided, and the lack of clear career opportunities, the attraction of knowledgeable, skilled and experienced academics in the future is likely to be problematic.

Challenges in maintaining student numbers
Competition for students has never been greater, not only between universities in developed countries (for example, Australia, US, UK, Singapore, and throughout the EU), but potentially also from emerging nations such as India, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and China as they establish more modern global institutions. Future developments in the AEC, with its emphases on employee (and student) mobility across the region, are likely to only increase such competition. International students and their parents are sensitive to issues such as political and economic stability, currency and cost of living relativities, and security, as well as the perceived reputation of particular institutions. The costs and benefits of online versus face-to-face learning programs, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of public versus private universities, also do not escape their attention. Hence, all higher education institutions in the Asia Pacific region need to monitor and respond to all of these factors in order to continuously maintain or grow their student numbers.

Graduate Work-Readiness Challenges
One of the consequences of the above two factors is that many potential employers are dissatisfied with the quality, competencies, knowledge and practical skills of the university graduates whom they seek. As a recent regional study of graduate work-readiness suggests, all Asian countries and their higher education systems are facing similar challenges – namely:

Weak emphasis on applied learning & vocational skills
Archaic/complex educational systems - inflexible
Content and methods of teaching lag behind practice
Poor strategic planning
Low quality teaching & inappropriate lecturer selection criteria
Absence of meaningful links with industry
Lecturers’ lack of actual work experience

(Brown et al. 2016)

There are of course universities throughout the Asia Pacific region which are exemplary in their attention to these challenges, seeking out the best teaching academics, providing them with appropriate rewards and benefits, and ensuring that teaching and learning results in industry-ready graduates through effective linkages with industry partners. However, it seems clear from this and other such studies that these negative factors and outcomes derive from higher education systems and their institutions which are disconnected from industry (and vice versa); which have largely ignored the need to include practical workplace knowledge and skills in their curriculum; and which have compounded these problems by downgrading the importance of teaching and learning priorities by focusing on research and publication. Such an emphasis serves to not only de-motivate teaching staff but also their students, and fails to adequately reflect their key income sources, namely student fees.  

Strategies to address these challenges
Whilst governments and industries also bear responsibilities for the causes of and solutions to these challenges, the higher education sector arguably has the key direct role. Thus, government policies are required which encourage 
industry to improve employee skill utilisation; disseminate information and advice which assist the matching of skills; formulate national skills assessments and qualifications frameworks; provide flexible recognition of prior learning (RPL) opportunities; and influence the demand for higher-level skills (OECD 2011, 20-23). Employers, on the other hand, need to link more closely with higher education institutions, to provide more work-based learning opportunities (for example, student placements and internships), and to facilitate graduate work transitions through ongoing skills acquisition and development opportunities.

However, it is the universities themselves which must address the three key challenges in order to continue to be engaged with and responsive to the communities which they serve, and to ensure their own survival within increasingly dynamic and competitive local and global environments. They need to be more responsive to industry labour demands, and to consequently establish closer and more collaborative ongoing industry-institutional linkages; to adapt to the dynamism of local, regional and global labour markets;  to provide education and training programs which better reflect new social, economic and technological contexts; and importantly, to develop new approaches to attracting, rewarding and retaining high quality, industry-experienced learning and teaching academics (Brown et al 2016). Some of the steps which might be taken include designing curricula which is more balanced between theory and praxis, financial incentives to encourage and support institutional links between educational and industrial institutions, and enhancing skills training for innovation (OECD 2011).

Brown, K. Burgess, J., Cameron, R., Connell, J., Dhakal, S., Nankervis, A., Mumme, B. 2016, Graduate work-readiness and employability challenges in the Asia Pacific: A preliminary study, Asia Business Centre, Curtin University. 

OECD 2011, Towards an OECD skills strategy, Paris: OECD.