In the Broadway musical, Something Rotten, two struggling playwrights, Nick and Nigel Bottom, are dismayed by the success of the upstart crow, Will Shakespeare.

Nick visits a soothsayer, the nephew of Nostradamus, to find out what Shakespeare’s biggest hit is going to be, with the aim of getting in first.

Nostradamus predicts it will be a totally new kind of performance: “a musical”; a play where “an actor is saying his lines, and out of nowhere he just starts singing”. Nick thinks this is ridiculous but goes along with the idea and writes tasteful numbers such as God I Hate Shakespeare and The Black Death.

As for the plot, Nostradamus can see vaguely a Danish prince eating a pastry, and he thinks Shakespeare’s greatest play will be called Omelette. So the Bottoms write Omelette: The Musical – which is a commercial disaster but weirdly on the right lines.

Kicking myself at agreeing to AHEIA’s request to talk about higher education in 2030, I tracked down a living descendant of Nostradamus, now trading as “OurGirl Foresight”, a consultant with her own algorithm called Will.  With the help of OurGirl and Will, this is my equivalent to Omelette: a presumably disastrous prediction of the UA Conference 2030.

OurGirl thinks she knows the titles of the plenary sessions – the Acts – but we haven’t figured out who the speakers are yet. We also have some thoughts on the breakout sessions – the Scenes.

OurGirl insists that the Conference overall will be called “The Compost”. I’m not convinced, frankly, and think she’s making an error similar to Omelette versus Hamlet.  I think the data suggest “The Tempest”, but, obviously, one follows a consultant’s advice.

So, let the curtain rise on “The Compost: A Tragi-Comedy of Errors about Higher Education in 2030”.

The acts

Labor’s Love Lost

The first main speaker, as usual, is the education minister.  We think she is Labor in 2030, mainly because OurGirl is sure the session is about lost love; and the Coalition had already fallen out of love with higher education some years earlier.

The minister stuns participants, who had expected broad support from her.  Universities and government have been talking past each other for decades, she says, and things are going to change.  For too long, universities have insisted they are about money for value: they know what is valuable and just want government to fund it.  Now, says the minister, it’s time to reverse that.  She wants value for money, university by university, and she will brook no opposition!

The minister lays out her three priorities.
* doing something about diminishing public support for universities.

A trend was first evidenced in 2020 with an Ipsos global survey, supported by King’s College London, the Fulbright Commission and the University of California.  This revealed relatively low levels of belief in the value of a degree in some countries, including Australia. Subsequent polls by 2030 have confirmed a decline of confidence in higher education.

Universities’ lack of engagement with the community is partly responsible, says the minister, but so too is the changing structure of the economy and workforce. Unless and until public support is regained, the government will not contemplate increases in per capita funding.

* demonstrating the actual return on investment from education and research

Blue sky research will only be funded if applicants can show the national interest in its outcomes and that there is a market failure in industry funding it. Applicants will need to provide evidence for both parts of this test.
Most publicly funded research will be “applied’, and a clear pathway to commercialization must be laid out. All other research is for the university to fund, but not from teaching money, because that is going to be a separate stream and used only for educational purposes.

As for education, the minister wants to reward learning gain; the value added to students by the provider.  She is less interested in the grooming of extra privilege onto the already privileged.  For years, learning gain has been thought of as the dark matter of education; you know it’s there but you just can’t see it.  Now, education researchers think they have found measures sufficiently robust to trial: and this minister, for one, is going to give it a go. (Groans from off-stage. The UA Board?)

* getting serious about reducing inequality

World Economic Forum data in 2030 shows no change from its 2018 ladder for Australia. If a child is born into a low-income family today it will take four generations before their descendants reach average earnings.

If one adds inequalities based on ethnicity and youth, the country is now stubbornly divided, and universities are part of the problem, she says. The minister lays down a challenge to the sector: how will it contribute to reducing inequality, and what metrics will demonstrate success?

In the light of these priorities, new policies are foreshadowed

* There is to be a return to tight control on student numbers according to field of education.  Uncapping has done much less for social equity than hoped, and many young people would have done better in a skill or trade. As first argued in 2022 in the UK, uncapping has not driven innovation either.

* student places might be increased henceforth if demography suggests it, but by 2030 workforce analytics have become sophisticated and accurate.  These will be the primary drivers of decisions about the size and composition of the sector

* universities will share with government the risk of a graduate not repaying their student loan within 10 years, by making universities liable for a portion of the unpaid debt.  “The market” has consistently failed to match talent to need because universities didn’t have a stake in their graduates’ prospects. Demand-driven funding had handed over supply issues to 17 year-olds, but demand-driven funding is going to be abolished as well!

* universities should now back themselves that there are careers and jobs in the fields they offer, based on the data, and make sure they prepare students well for them. This entails a serious upgrade in careers services, using a case management approach, student by student, from the day they start their course.

* targets for learning gain will be set, and a portion of funding will be withheld from universities that fail to reach them

* students will be allowed to progress at their own pace, which includes doing assessment whenever they feel ready.  A sector based mainly on inputs is to become one founded on outputs. Funding is to be by the week rather than the semester, and if a student completes a unit in six weeks rather than 13, then six weeks’ funding is what will be provided, and what is chalked up to the HELP debt.  Students will now have an incentive to move through more quickly, to keep their debt down.

Only half the world’s a stage

Next, the conference takes stock of how the world has changed in the last decade.

The search is still on to clarify and define a new world order following acceptance that globalisation has failed and rules-based regimes have helped the haves more than the have-nots.

The Ukraine invasion, hard on the heels of the pandemic, put globalisation into reverse by disrupting supply chains, but then people realised that it also generated many losers who were not compensated by the winners; there wasn’t even a process for compensation. Trickle down hadn’t happened, and automation was now making things worse.  Populism is in full swing, and that doesn’t include “free trade”.

The very symbol and enabler of a connected world – the World Wide Web – is no longer world-wide. The Splinternet Revolution has allowed autocratic regimes to seal off their population, using analytics to monitor people and social credit to motivate them. Liberal democracies have remained liberal, but they just can’t do business with the others any more.

Global culture wars are defining the age; as they did in earlier periods of human history.

This particular session sets the scene for the next one, on the implications of it all for higher education, but in case the relevance is lost on the audience UA has hired some elves (as part of their Work-Integrated Learning) who come on at the end of each paper and stage whisper bizarrely about how it connects to the next one. (That’s what OurGirl says, anyway, and the Bard did some odd things as well.)

King John Dawkins II

I think OurGirl has something wrong here, but a follow up to King John I is long awaited: someone who will take the sector by the scruff of the neck and brook little opposition.nThis session is about what is happening to tertiary education in a multi-polar world; the so-called Great Fragmentation.

The boycotting of collaboration with Russian universities, who supported Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and the withdrawal of China from non-Chinese rankings, which started in 2022 and grew, have had huge consequences.

Now, autocracies want higher education with a strong national flavour.

International research collaboration is greatly restricted; no country can allow the loss of its IP.

Onshore international student numbers have not returned to 2019 levels. Governments didn’t have the nous to use international education as a response to calamitously low fertility rates and alarming skill shortages. And by 2030, each country wants to educate its own, and keep them.

Auditors-General in Australia insist on each university being viable on the basis of domestic students alone.

These and other developments have led to serious re-imagination of university forms.  One in particular mirrors what has happened in many service industries.

Platform universities have arrived. As Sir Henry Maine said in 1861, modernity entails a shift in social relations “from status to contrac.”Well, modernity has finally caught up with universities. The expanding ones are now really multitudes of contracts, managed through sophisticated software, rather than status-based complexes glued together by seniority and authority.

The academic and the researcher are freelancers, selling their talents where and how they can. The rising universities are the best buyers. The binary division between higher and vocational education is collapsing quickly. A tertiary ecosystem is replacing it. Revised Higher Education Standards in 2021, as interpreted by TEQSA,  have bitten hard, and several universities re-invented themselves because they could not reach the required research levels in enough fields. Students want all three of Aristotle’s knowledges – knowing why, knowing how and knowing what to do – not just the first.  New forms of institution are finally now encouraged by the singe agency that replaced TEQSA and ASQA to think about themselves differently.

The institutions most in trouble are in the undifferentiated middle; neither elite/lucky, nor sufficiently entrepreneurial.

As You Want It

Uncannily, this act draws on the minister’s priorities and the way that the world and higher education are changing.

An expert in Customer Experience pours scorn on what some institutions regard as student experience.

A further speaker shows how the holy grail of education – personalised learning at scale – can be affordably delivered using technology and learning analytics. Both speakers, wisely leave the tricky stuff to the final act, which shows how technologies developed during the 2020s have come together in the metaversity; some people’s dream.

A Metaverse Night’s Dream

The “idea of a university” is now a headset not a campus. Multiple worlds can be imagined and viewed through new, technologically-created “realities.” Students can experience great facilities and incredible laboratories whilst learning as they have become accustomed to learning, through games.

Just like the strange artistic form of the musical, the metaversity takes some getting used to, but audiences are now loving it.

The platform universities in particular know how to buy in what their students want to stream, and don’t try to create it themselves.

The metaversity isn’t for everyone.  Just as the sales of physical notebooks and their e-ink alternatives continue to appeal to those who want to write by hand or draw – in other words to think on their own terms – some institutions continue to appeal to people who know that they want something in person and analogue.

But the universities that haven’t decided what they are really about have become Kodak institutions by 2030, unable to grasp the business they are really in.

The scenes

There’s only so much detail a superforecaster can provide, especially using a Shakespearian operating model, but OurGirl and I can glimpse what some of the break-out sessions are about.

Measures for Measures: New Performance Based Funding for Learning Gain and Research Impact.

The Shaming of the True: Restricting Academic Freedom on National Security Grounds.

All’s Well That Ends Well: How to Track Your Graduates’ Progress through Life.

Nothing Much About Lots: Why the Population Timebomb is about to Explode and We Aren’t Talking About It!

In 2030, momentous change is in the air, as it last was in 1990.

In 1990, one cold war was ending. In 2030, its replacement is going strong, affecting everything, in combination with climate change.

Education is not immune. In 1990, countries like Australia were combining institutes of advanced education with universities. In 2030, the practical is making a triumphant return over the theoretical and institutions are fragmenting again.

In 1990, student loan schemes were coming in.  By 2030, they are becoming university loan schemes as well; funding comes with strings and the taxpayer needs some insurance against failure, not just the graduate.  Like a scientific revolution, old theories and policies about higher education no longer fit the facts in 2030, and new ones are replacing them.

OurGirl and I look forward to seeing what actually happens at The Compost Conference; through our headsets.  (I still think it should be called The Tempest.)

Based on a presentation to the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association Conference, May 20 2022 by Professor Stephen Parker AO, honorary professorial fellow, Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne



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