Despite impressive growth over the past two decades – the doubling of local and international student enrolments, significant increases in current and projected participation rates, a surge in research outcomes and revenues approaching $24 billion annually (Grattan Institute 2013) – the Australian higher education sector is at a crossroads.
Driven to provide broad access to higher education, Australian universities have had to review their overall roles, teaching philosophies and practices, research strategies and operating systems.
Mass education has demanded significant restructuring of academic and administrative systems, founded on the commercialisation of their services.
These pressures have arguably had more impact on business schools than on other institutional counterparts as they’re regarded as the ‘cash cows’ of universities.
Entry standards and articulation arrangements differ between institutions. Thirty-nine universities compete directly with TAFE and more than 130 new private education providers; face-to-face teaching interfaces with online learning; and assessment requirements are frequently rationalised.
Technological solutions are ubiquitous for purposes such as student access to learning materials, recording lectures, assignment submission and student evaluations of their lecturers’ competence.
These changes address new economic realities and can transform student learning experiences.
The unintended consequences of these higher education changes:
- Variable entry scores within and between universities, together with diverse articulation and assessment systems, have raised significant concerns about student and program quality standards. Faced with huge numbers of students in cramped lecture theatres, minimal or non-existent tutorials, online learning materials (which render lecture attendance superfluous), endless marking, student appeal procedures and invalid lecturer evaluation processes, it is almost inevitable that corners will be cut. Overly simplistic assessments; the manipulation of student evaluations; and the over-use of experienced casual academic staff on employment contracts for teaching, marking and course coordination lead to perceptions of reduced academic quality.
- The removal of work placements and internships from many business and HRM programs, due to inadequate staffing, has deprived many students of the ‘work-ready’ capabilities demanded by employers.
- Perhaps most importantly, the traditional nexus between teaching and research has been seriously fractured in universities, and in business schools particularly. While the rhetoric of research informing teaching (and vice versa) persists, the reality is that it is research rather than teaching that yields funding, reputations and careers. All of these rewards are predicated on the receipt of competitive (ARC) grants, publications in ‘high quality’ international journals and doctoral completions. To address these imbalances, there are teaching awards in many universities and some institutions have moved towards dual career options – ‘teaching’ versus ‘research’. But few academics would expect these approaches will provide equitable career paths.
- HRM systems in many universities seldom approach ‘world’s best practice’. More often than not, university HR professionals are regarded as administrative or functional specialists rather than strategic business partners (Ulrich 2013).
There is minimal HR planning, even though the academic workforce is ageing and the attractions (salary, benefits, careers) are uncompetitive; HR development activities are cursory or non-existent; and academic performance management systems are arguably farcical.
What should universities do to address these issues?
There are several effective approaches. First, entry to higher education should be based on increases in ATAR scores. Second, the blend of face-to-face teaching with online learning needs to be revisited to encourage more interaction between students and lecturers; and the proportion of casual versus full-time lecturers requires consideration.
The hiatus between teaching and research skills and responsibilities also requires consideration, as does the inclusion of some form of work-based placement or project in the curriculum and pedagogy of business school courses.