So I read that Ernst & Young has released a report on the future of universities, saying bluntly that “Over the next 10-15 years, the current public university model in Australia will prove unviable in all but a few cases”.

With all due respect, bollocks.

E&Y’s document (embedded at the bottom of the ABC article) is not a report. It’s a 32-page pamphlet with meaningless “inspiring” background graphics — one appears to show a guy in a kayak — and an advertisement for E&Y’s own higher education advisory services:

Our higher education team — with deep strategic and operational experience in the sector — is ideally placed to advise university leaders on the transition to new models for the future.

Uh huh. There’s nothing like a bit of disinterested, objective analysis, is there? Certainly nothing like it here, anyway. In that context, let’s look at E&Y’s “drivers of change”.

Number one: “Democratisation of knowledge and access”. The Internet has given us all ready access to all human knowledge and wisdom (more or less). An inspiring fact, but one that was surely fairly obvious. But do not mistake access for learning. Mere access to all human knowledge and wisdom has not — and will not — transform us into a society of philosophers. This is well understood and appreciated in today’s universities as it is. We already know that the process of education ultimately requires face-to-face interaction and personalised feedback.

Number two: “Contestability of markets and funding”. E&Y assert that competition is high. Perhaps so, but there’s a distinct lack of quantitative reasoning. What level of competition implies disruptive change, and why? E&Y also assert that government funding is harder to find. This seems to be blamed implicitly on the global financial crisis and the Australian government’s insistence on a budget surplus. This is a rather short-term outlook that jars with E&Y’s overall discussion of next 10-15 years.

Number three: “Digital technologies”. This is little more than a repeat of number one. E&Y cite “Massive Open Online Courses” (or “MOOC”s, apparently), but we knew this was happening. It takes a certain willpower to believe that this will supplant traditional university course structures. Online courses are obviously a lot cheaper — far fewer resources aimed at much larger numbers of students. But stop for a moment and consider what those resources are traditionally spent on: face-to-face contact and personalised feedback. These facets of traditional education aren’t just important in themselves, but underpin the whole process. Setting complex assessment tasks is futile without the resources to properly mark and give feedback on assignment submissions. Face-to-face contact allows in-class testing with much less fear of cheating. Online courses try to achieve economies of scale largely by ignoring those parts of the education process that are inherently unscalable.

Number four: “Global mobility”. This is an extension to number two and three. If students around the world could choose any university to study at, they’ll all choose one of the top 15-20 university “brands”. Among online courses, this seems fairly logical. But for the wider university education, the inevitable resourcing problem will get in the way. It’s not enough just to have an internet connection. For most people, if you want a real education, you have to physically travel to the institute at which you will receive it, and the real world has certain physical limitations that do not exist online.

Number five: “Integration with industry”. In its last point, E&Y merely babbles on about university partnerships with industry. Yes, for many kinds of degrees, some sort of structured, supervised work experience is definitely a good thing. Yes, industry should most certainly be in the loop on the design and implementation of university courses. E&Y doesn’t even bother to get this specific, and there is nothing new here. I don’t see how this is a “driver” of change.

E&Y’s “methodology” covers 1 of 32 pages, hidden at the end of the document. It’s entirely opaque, except for this bit, which is only somewhat translucent:

We interviewed more than 40 senior executives from public universities, private universities, policy makers and sector representative groups across Australia, to understand their views on:
  • Drivers of change in the higher education sector
  • The long-term future of universities
  • Potential evolutions of the university model
  • Implications for their institution

Our interviewees included leaders of more than 20 universities, including 15 Vice-Chancellors.

E&Y’s document was sprinkled with choice quotes from their interviewees, but I suspect this process was more of a fishing expedition than an attempt at objective analysis. Even taken at face value, this methodology is extremely subjective — prone to the natural cynicism of those who have already seen disruptive changes.

The whole exercise seems just a bit cynical: E&Y’s information comes principally from those working in universities already, and yet the “report” seems intended as a “wake-up call” for those same universities. In other words, they’re using our own cynicism to make us afraid for our future, to further their own business. Universities are not blind to the challenges discussed by E&Y. Discussion of those challenges comes from universities in the first place.