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Higher Education: optimising opportunities to create greater impact

The importance of the Higher Education sector for the growth and development of society is a generally accepted principle. But ensuring openness and access is critical in Higher Education, to optimise its impact on society.

Higher Education is undergoing drastic change

Currently, Higher Education is going through drastic change globally. The modes of delivery and values guiding our institutions all create the drive for more diverse opportunities and greater impact on society. Rapid change in technology and increased competition in a continually globalising world has confirmed the need to prepare more people with knowledge and skills to lead innovation. The global pandemic is adding urgency to these considerations.

We must develop an understanding of what this changing role for the Higher Education sector means for society, and how we are participating in the changes.

Most importantly, we must recognise the responsibility of leaders in Higher Education to embrace this change and ensure greater openness in the sector.

Open access rests on the fundamental principle that Higher Education should provide the opportunity for as many people as possible to access its services to reach their full potential. Inclusive and equitable education is indeed a priority in the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations.

The debate around the potential of openness in Higher Education and its implications is of the utmost importance. This is especially true in an environment where inequality is becoming one of the key threats to societal development.

There are different degrees of openness

It is evident that openness in education depends on the democratisation of societies and, with it, the democratisation of information and knowledge. In the language of the Nobel Prize winning Indian economist Amartya Sen: development is freedom. That is, development depends on and grows access to services and opportunities that enhance meaningful and quality living.

Interpreting openness in this context broadly refers to flexible, fair, welcoming, non-restrictive and unprejudiced access, which allows choice for the person intending to enrol in Higher Education. It involves recognising that there are different levels of openness.

In Australia, there has been a vibrant discussion about whether the ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank) remains a fair and effective tool to measure a student’s potential for success. Torrens University and Think Education, like other institutions such as ANU and Swinburne, recently announced we will no longer consider ATAR as a mechanism to determine the entrance of students into university. This is an example of ensuring openness and access to all students. Instead of assessing a student’s potential with a number, we have created an alternative pathway to optimise the opportunities for students to enter higher education and ultimately, to succeed.

Indeed, allowing entrance in a more flexible manner requires a shift from an input orientation to an output focus. This requires intelligent systems and processes to understand the profile and learning needs of students and systematic support and monitoring of progress throughout the learning lifecycle of the student.

Growing openness of access to Higher Education involves recognition that it adheres to basic purpose values. These include promoting self-regulated life-long learning, self-determination and personal agency. This approach, while it is based on the democratisation of society, contributes to strengthening that democracy through reconfirming its values, and enabling citizens to realise it through self-actualisation.

Openness should be understood in terms of its access dimension – that is, the choice it allows individuals, and the variety it creates in terms of time, space and practice/process.

Openness and flexibility therefore serve to bring people into the Higher Education environment as well as enabling them to exercise choice in accessing specific services and opportunities, meeting their personal circumstances, their learning and individual support needs and their aspirations.

It should be possible for people to access services in a timeframe convenient to their circumstances. This implies service delivery that enables people to choose between different types or modes of access and delivery to enable appropriate flexibility.

Space is also critical. This refers to the choice around physical presence or learning from a different geographical location. It refers to enabling and enhancing critical capacity in areas such as technology and services that facilitate remote learning. This allows synchronous or asynchronous activity based on the choice of students. Advances in technology provide significant capacity to open services and opportunities for flexible participation and greater student choice. To help students consider their options, this year we pulled together a series of Virtual Careers Expos with other Higher Education providers, reaching almost 20,000 students across Australia and New Zealand. These expos demonstrated the ability for higher education sectors in Australia and New Zealand to adapt, innovate and collaborate.

Institutional strategies, methods, policy environments and curricula should adapt to facilitate that flexibility, providing choice and the ability to be agile and innovative. This is also why online or hybrid learning is essential. At Torrens University, students can choose face-to-face or online – or both – to undertake their studies. Importantly, online offerings must never compromise on quality so that students studying remotely are not worse off than students learning face-to-face.

Higher Education institutions as service providers is critical to societal change

The practice and process of engagement should acknowledge the full spectrum of support services required by an inclusive learning environment. It should represent the flexibility for students to access services based on their needs in creative ways.

It is important to understand that the idea of openness does not refer to normlessness or having no boundaries. It refers rather to enabling values and mechanisms to direct and regulate enhanced effectivity and efficiency.

To meet this requirement, policies should be clear, specific and understandable. Systems, processes and services should be predictable and reliable. Conditions should be fair and reasonable and should enable and not exclude based on prejudice or unfair preference.

It is evident that openness or open access to Higher Education depends on the values, ideology and practice of the respective institutions. An enabling regulatory and societal system provides the freedom and incentive for the Higher Education sector to develop complementary approaches and capacity.

The changes in internationalisation, as well as the impact that the new era of technology development has on influencing social, economic, manufacturing and political environments and the world of work, means Higher Education institutions are confronted with significant choices. Their institutionalised roles of knowledge creators and education providers require them to be integral participants in leading and supporting societal development and change through ensuring that innovation is supported by creative new knowledge. This ensures citizens are prepared with the social and human capital required to improve the human condition.

The Higher Education sector should be able to contribute to societal development by enabling participation in its services, while reaching out to other participants in its social context to advance human wellbeing.

To fulfil its role in this manner requires a deep understanding and commitment to its functions as a service organisation and innovator. The sector needs to develop creative ways to open itself to the provision of services and opportunities. It needs to be aligned with the needs of society while concurrently meeting the needs and expectations of the individual.

Considering the complex and dynamic environment within which Higher Education entities function, they should choose their focus and scope carefully and build strategies, systems and processes that will open their boundaries to interaction with industry, society, government, while providing for individual choice and participation. For example, Torrens University, Think Education and Media Design School collaborate with industry from the very outset as we build our curricula. This engagement continues throughout the student journey – through work integrated learning, Success Coaches and teaching staff who are industry leaders in their own right.

In relation to the expected role of Higher Education in partnering in the development of society and the shift from input to output should take a next step to focus on the real impact it makes.

Openness is therefore not only a matter of access to Higher Education; rather, it is an inclusive process of opening entrance opportunities, followed by a purpose driven support environment aiming to ensure successful graduates are prepared to contribute to society.

The principles of openness should be considered in a context of fairness, equal opportunity, user friendliness and a commitment to create a supportive and enabling environment.

The Higher Education sector should consider its purpose and role carefully and design its focus and activities with sensitivity to the changing context, while participation in its activities should be democratic and enable people sufficient choice to benefit from it. This will determine its future role and contribution.

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