IT and the Future of Tertiary Education in Australia

Tom Worthington

For Australian Computer Society, 5:00 pm, 7 June 2016, Canberra.

Slides and notes:
First presented as "How CIOs are vital to the Future of Tertiary Education in Australia" at Tertiary Education IT Leaders Congress, EduTech, 30 May 2016, Brisbane.

Description: Education is Australia's fourth largest export industry. However, higher education needs on-line to remain competitive. Meantime campuses are evolving into networked places to live and be entertained, with learning spaces more like an airport business lounge than a classroom.

  1. Blended Learning: E-learning by stealth has taken over,
  2. Wireless Campus: Lecture theaters replaced by wifi learning spaces,
  3. Education as Entertainment: Students demand a full bandwidth experience,
  4. Education as a business: Move on-line or go under.

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The Real University is Virtual

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,  Robert M. Pirsig, 2006

In the next five to ten years higher education will move 80% on-line, with information professionals essential to the process.

"...the real university exists not as the physical campus, but as a body of reason within the minds of students and teachers ..." From Chapter 13, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig, 2006

Education Export Industry

ANU Landscape

After iron ore, coal and natural gas, education is Australia's fourth largest export earner:

"International students in the higher education sector generated $11.7 billion in export income, while students in the vocational education and training sector produced $2.7 billion." Minister for Education and Training, Christopher Pyne, 2015

The Minister for Education and Training, Christopher Pyne, released a draft "National Strategy for International Education" in 2015. This is a ten year strategy for Australia to remain a globally competitive education provider. Austrade, the Australian Government's industry export body, aims to double the number of international students in Australia by 2025 and also increase overseas training with Australian-developed courses.

The Australian strategy includes higher education, VET, school education and English language tuition, within the definition of "International Education", where study is in Australia or at offshore campuses.

E-learning Strategy?

Only 3% ($600 million out of $17.6 billion) was earned offshore in 2014.

The National Strategy for International Education only touches on e-learning:

"... supplement online education with experiential learning, such as videoconference discussions and webinars" [p. 50]

Online education, including Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), is also part of the Australian. Strategic action 6.1 is "Leading good practice in new modes of delivery, including online" [7, p. 49] and also refers to Recognition of Prior Learning. However, the strategy is primarily aimed at university degree education at campuses in Australia. The strategy is less detailed and less ambitious, when it comes to vocational on-line sub-degree programs.

The techniques of Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL), the accumulation of small units of learning for credit ("badges") and self paced e-learning with less instructor involvement have been pioneered by the VET sector in Australia for sub-degree programs. Australian universities have less experience in this area and failure to recognize this is a major weakness in the Australian government strategy.

The Australian government strategy notes challenges with online learning, particularly negative perceptions from governments and employers [p. 49]. Unfortunately the strategy's analysis of online learning is limited. As an example, the strategy says: "supplement online education with experiential learning, such as videoconference discussions and webinars" [p. 50], which suggests the authors do not understand that videoconferencing and webinars are already a key part of online learning, not a "supplement". Also the strategy only touches on vocational education, instead focusing on university education.

A report for the European Parliament warns: "In many countries, the rationale for international student recruitment is revenue generation and this may lead to an over-reliance on a small number of countries such as China and India.". This could be seen to particularly apply to Australia's situation. There is scope for expansion in education services to China and India, but the most rapid expansions is likely to be outside the traditional on-campus degree programs, which the Australian government strategy focuses on.

Campuses are evolving into networked places

Meantime campuses are evolving into networked places to live and be entertained, with learning spaces more like an airport business lounge than a classroom.

ANU's Union Court plan includes accommodation, shops, cafes and bars "to support the campus lifestyle".

Blended Learning

E-learning by stealth has taken over Australian universities:

How many students attend lectures: 25% - 30%?

Both the Moodle Learning Management System and Echo360 lecture recording system were developed in Australia. It is now routine for lectures to be recorded and offered on-line to students, along with course notes and assignments. This is creating a dilemma for "lecturers" who are used to giving live lectures. The better the quality of the on-line materials, the fewer students turn up to class. This can be addressed with the "flipped" classroom, with conventional lectures eliminated.

There are Australian visa restrictions on the proportion of on-line courses an international student can undertake:

"Students can study up to 25 per cent of their course by online and/or distance learning, but in each compulsory study period each student must be studying at least one unit that is not by distance or online."

From "Online and distance", National Code Part D, Standard 9 of the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000 (ESOS Act), Australian Department of Education and Training.

However, for a typical university course it may only be necessary for students to be on campus for 20% of their studies, with the other 80% on-line. Does a course which is 80% on-line meet the visa requirements as "not by distance or on-line"? The practical effect of this is that a full time student needs to be on campus for one day a week.

Fewer Universities to Improve Rankings

Only three Australian universities in Times World Reputation 100 Rankings: Melbourne, ANU and Sydney.

Currently 43 universities for 1.3M students: 30,000 students per university.

Garrett (2016) suggests unis of 100,000 to 500,000 students.

Australia with 10 universities, each with 130,000 students?

The latest Times Higher Education's World Reputation Rankings has only three Australian universities in the top 100:  University of Melbourne, Australian National University and University of Sydney. These rankings are based on the opinions of academics. As Asian countries increase in wealth they can afford to spend more on their universities and so their rankings will increase and those of other countries will continue to decline.

The rankings are not very meaningful for academics, as it is the team for a particular sub-discipline which is important, not the institution overall. However, the university reputation is important in terms of attracting students and funding.

One way Australia could improve its rankings is to have fewer universities. Currently Australia has 43 universities for 1.3 million students, which is about 30,000 students per university.  Research by Garrett (2016) indicates that larger institutions (100,000 to 500,000 students) were growing, whereas smaller ones were declining. This suggests Australia should have about 10 universities, each with about 130,000 students. This need not require a radical restructuring or closing of campuses, just merging of university brands.

Garrett's study was of on-line universities and it might be argued that this is not applicable to Australia's campus based institutions. However, a radical restructuring of universities is happening in Australia, brought on by adoption of e-learning. This will happen regardless of the size of Australian universities and will happen regardless of what they do. Currently this restructuring is being largely undertaken by stealth under the label of "blended learning". However, whatever it is called, if Australian universities don't restructure for e-learning and have a sufficient size to make them viable, they will be put out of business by overseas institutions offering education on-line to Australian students.

VET Combined with Universities

"A sub-bachelor course leading to a diploma, advanced diploma or associate degree can also offer a recognised qualification that leads to rewarding jobs and careers, as well as providing a potential pathway to further study at bachelor level and beyond." from Driving Innovation, Fairness and Excellence in Australian Higher Education Australian Government, p. 11, 2016)

ANU College, provides university preparatory courses and diplomas.

The laws governing the Australian Vocational Education and Training student loan scheme (VET FEE-HELP), have been tightened. Some measures came in mid 2015 and others as of 1 January 2016. This is to counter rorting of the system by Registered Training Organizations (RTOs). It has been estimated that 40% of student loans will not be repaid. This is unfortunate, as the VET system provides a useful alternative, and stepping stone, to university degrees. The new regulations are a start but VET needs to be seen as a complement to universities, not an alternative.

An example of complementarity is ANU College, which providing university preparatory courses and diplomas.

The Australian Government released a discussion paper questioning if so many students need a university degree to get a job. In "Driving Innovation, Fairness and Excellence in Australian Higher Education", the government is considering if it should fund cheaper sub-bachelor programs:

"A sub-bachelor course leading to a diploma, advanced diploma or associate degree can also offer a recognised qualification that leads to rewarding jobs and careers, as well as providing a potential pathway to further study at bachelor level and beyond." from Australian Government, p. 11, 2016)

I suggest that this could be extended further to include certificates (about half a diploma, six months full time study). On its own a certificate is sufficient for some jobs and is also a useful complement to a qualification in another field.

A hot topic in Australia at present (and I assume elsewhere) is the employability of university graduates and if they have work ready skills. Ramadi, Ramadi and Nasr (2016) looked at the gap between what engineering graduates learn and what  industry expects of them. This looks very scientific with t-tests and graphs, but it is still a measurement of the opinion of industry as to what graduates should be able to do, not what they actually need to be able to do.

The Australian Taxation Office monitors the salaries of graduates as part of the student loans scheme and so has very detailed quantitative data as to what salaries graduates get. The universities have measures of course quality, including what employers say they want, but if the result is not a higher paying job (or any job), then this is unlikely to be convincing for government.

On-line Colombo Plan

The Colombo Plan Secretariat

Four Colombo Plans:

  1. Colombo Plan: 1951
  2. Virtual Colombo Plan: 2001
  3. New Colombo Plan: 2013
  4. Digital Colombo Plan: 2015

Propose On-line Colombo Plan: start training Australian teachers, with teachers in India in the Australian digital technology curriculum on-line.

Australia's contribution to the 1950s Colombo Plan was to fund university students from the region to study in Australia. The aim was to have Australian alumni holding senior positions in government, industry and academic positions in the region as a form of soft diplomacy. In 2001 the Australian Government announced a five year $230M "Virtual Colombo Plan", to support of Distance Education programs based in developing countries. The "New Colombo Plan" of 2013 sponsors Australian students to study in an Asian university. AARnet proposed a "Digital Colombo Plan" in 2015 for more submarine fibre-optic cable capacity from Australia to Asia, Africa and Latin America for linking up educational institutions.

Sending students overseas is an expensive way to provide an education and international understanding. Almost all of these students traveled to Australia to study. However, Australia also provided an early form of mobile vocational multimedia, with six "cinema vans" touring Indonesia to show educational films to farmers, from 1952. It is therefore proposed to combine elements of the Original, Virtual, New and Digital Colombo Plans, to have Australian and regional students meet in on-line classes, for international understanding and development. Sub-degree vocational programs should be emphasized in the new plan, as this is an area lacking in the region and the best way to promote the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It is proposed that Australia offer on-line courses for the "Australian Curriculum: Technologies" to teachers of the region, in joint on-line classes with Australian teachers.

Wireless Campus

Inspire Center at University of Canberra is the future, with flexible spaces and a minimalist TEAL room.

Students and staff, now expect WiFi provided in campus buildings. Lecture theaters are being replaced by wifi learning spaces,

The era of the traditional university "computer lab" is over, along with the "lecture theater" and the "library": these are merging into common learning spaces. The Inspire Center at University of Canberra is a model for this, with flexible spaces and a minimalist TEAL room.

In 2007 I attended a talk by Philip Long and Mark Schulz on TEAL rooms. For the next five years I looked at how to optimize the space in TEAL inspired computer labs, with false floors for cable and desks with built in cabling. But by 2012 the technology had moved on, to the point where we just needed rooms with technology on the walls and wifi. The problem of how to accommodate fixed furniture and the technology on it could be solved, by not having any. Desks on wheels can be arranged as required and students bring their own equipment.

Data visualization can be done using the screens on all walls to display the same image, active learning through the student's individual BYOD devices using the room's wifi and team-based collaboration by allocating a screen and some of the white-board wall, to each team.

What University Looks Like to a Student

6 March - 12 March

Week 3: Energy Saving - Data Centres and Client Equipment

From ICT Sustainability, first run as "Green Information Technology Strategies", July 2009.

In reviewing Clare Howell Major's book "Teaching Online", Sandra Leaton Gray writes "Digital learning may be the future, but the present is more uncertain" (Times Higher Education, 3 September 2015). No, e-learning is not the future, it is the here and now. It may be called flipped, or blended, or just "the notes are on the web", but having an on-line component in a university course is now commonplace. Within five years I expect it will be 80% of all education at the upper secondary and higher education.

I have not read Clare Howell Major's book, but this review seems to be, at least in part, about the reviewer's  skepticism of e-learning than the book itself. It may be uncertain in some UK universities (more about that later), but in Australia at least digital learning is now routine.

Courses which are entirely on-line are rarer than blended, but even Australia's leading research institution, the Australian National University, is offering 125 on-line courses for 2016 (19 undergraduate and 106 graduate), plus a new on-line Law degree.

Sandra Leaton Gray comments "... you sit at home and converse on a forum with other committed students and a leading lecturer at a world-class university ...". That is not a vision of the future, I have been teaching postgraduates on-line at a world class university (and lesser institutions)  for six years. This was after an epiphany in 2008, when I announced to a class of ANU students it would be my last lecture (ever).  It has taken years to learn how to teach on-line, but it now seems very routine.

There are problems with the quality of some on-line courses. This is more of a problem at the undergraduate level, where students need more hand-holding. The more mature the students and more real-world work experience they have, the easier they are to teach (especially on-line).

It helps if the staff are trained and qualified to design and deliver on-line courses. There are decades of research and practical experience, on what to do and how to do it, what works and what doesn't work. Higher Education institutions have been offering specialized qualifications in on-line learning (previously called "Distance Education") for at least twenty years.

On-line learning is not that different to other teaching, or at least that is what I told the staff at University of Cambridge a few weeks ago, when they asked me for some tips to teach their graduates on-line (Cambridge has adopted the Moodle free open source learning management system, from Australia).

Education as Entertainment

Students demand a full bandwidth experience.

Education as a business

Focus on HE for innovation

More Information
  1. The presentation notes are at:
  2. Slides for these notes are also available
  3. Tom Worthington
  4. Minister for Education and Training, "Education exports worth $18.1 billion," Commonwealth of Australia, [Press release]. 2015, August 7, 2015. [Online]. Available:
  5. J. Chew and S. Holmes, "We educate Asian graduates but they can't find jobs at home," The Australian Financial Review, February 21, 2016. [Online]. Available:
  6. D. Gopal and D. Ahlawat, "Australia-India Strategic Relations: From Estrangement to Engagement," India Quarterly: A Journal of International Affairs, vol. 71, no. 3, pp. 206-220, 2015. [Online]. Available:
  7. Department of for Education and Training, "Draft National Strategy for International Education," April, 2015. [Online]. Available:
  8. Austrade, "Australian International Education 2025," 2016. [Online]. Available:
  9. H. de Wit, F. Hunter, E. Egron-Polak and L. Howard, "Internationalisation of Higher Education. A study for the European Parliament," 2015. European Parliament. [Online]. Available:
  10. Garrett, R. (2016). The State of Open Universities in the Commonwealth: A perspective on performance, competition and innovation. Retrieved from:

Version 1.0, 25 May 2016, Tom Worthington

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IT and the Future of Tertiary Education in Australia by Tom Worthington is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.