Big business and universities

Big business ideas for the future role of universities in Australia are skewed and should be called out

It is not unusual these days for big business to want to have a say in what is going on in education. Ernst and Young (having now rebadged themselves as EY) is one of those big businesses with an interest in education. It is a multinational accounting firm headquartered in London and it has special interests in our universities both as a producer of position papers, but also as management consultants.

Recently EY released a report on Australian universities Can Universities Today Lead Learning for Tomorrow where it outlines what it thinks Australian universities could do “to transform themselves to serve a changing society and a profoundly changed world.” This most recent report builds on one released by the same firm in 2012, University of the Future: A Thousand Year Old Industry on the Cusp of Profound Change.

We were moved to respond to this particular report because we believe it shows an extremely limited understanding of the role of university education and the role of universities in Australia and is both misinformed and potentially misleading.

What the report says

The report offers advice on how universities should position themselves in the context of five perceived disruptors to the sector: the changing nature of work; the blurring of industry boundaries; evolving digital behaviours; increasing international competition; and the rise of continuous learning. We agree those disruptors are indeed upon us, along with others that can be identified, such as the growth of global education businesses and the influence of wealthy philanthropists on national education policies, both in Australia and elsewhere.

The report outlines four possible future scenarios available to Australia in responding to these five disruptors of universities. They range from making no changes, to having all students enrolled in virtual universities. The scenarios aim to stimulate thought and debate about the future of the Australian university sector with regard to teaching and learning.

As practising teaching and research academics and as researchers who specialise in the study of higher education we welcome debates about the future of Australian universities. However it is here that we believe the EY report is misinformed and misleading because the four scenarios it suggests as a basis for discussion make assumptions about Australian universities that are significantly flawed.

Australian universities mean more to us than just another way to make money

Overall, the report characterises universities as having purely commercial purposes, presupposing that the only things that count are those with a monetary value. This ignores the role of universities in providing social and cultural benefits for public good, which underpin Australia as a civil and democratic society. Good citizens are more than workers, and universities play essential educative roles related to social inclusion while also addressing key issues of inequality both in teaching and also research.

Universities not only contribute significantly to the Australian national economy, as the EY report emphasises, they also underpin local and regional economies and communities, driving innovation and social and economic change. Ask the citizens of Geelong, Newcastle, Cairns and Wollongong, for example, to imagine their futures without their local university. Most critically, the EY report does not recognise the specific historical, cultural and political conditions under which Australian universities exist relative to USA and UK higher education systems that are the report’s key points of reference. For example, Australian universities were not initially funded by the church or private enterprise like universities in the UK and the US but were always conceived as part of important institutions that serve a public good. As a result they were always more reliant on state funding with a strong utilitarian and vocational orientation aimed at educating the rising middle class for the professions. More recently, Australian public universities to varying degrees have become amongst the most corporatised in the world, with the principles of markets and managerialism embedded in everyday practice.

University students and teachers in Australia are more than just consumers and ‘talent’

The report depicts the university of the future as a hollowed-out de-peopled organisation in which students have no role except as consumers and academics are ‘talent’.

Most notably, student and academic voices are absent from the scenarios suggested despite teaching and research being social practices whose success is underpinned by pedagogical relationships and not just customer service. The real risk is when universities engage in decision-making about teaching, assessment and research without sufficient input from students and practising teachers and researchers. Lack of academic and student voice results in reduced innovation and academic entrepreneurship, outcomes that are directly at odds with Australia’s National Science and Innovation Agenda.

Decoupling teaching and research teams will have negative (not positive) results

The fourth virtual scenario predicts an ‘unbundled value chain’ in which academics become fully outsourced workers. Overall, teaching is decoupled from research and restricted to knowledge transfer while research is reduced to a commercial transaction for economic gain.

This ignores how teaching and research teams are integral to both good teaching and knowledge production. It also ignores that much research is undertaken through cross-institutional and cross-national research communities which rely on building and maintaining ongoing relationships within and between teams that have significant institutional support.

Australian universities are already at the forefront of technological developments within teaching and research

The EY report fails to acknowledge that some Australian universities are already at the forefront of technological developments within teaching and research. Significantly, it characterises educational technologies as being value free rather than being socially constructed through processes involving multiple (and often competing) economic and political interests due to the involvement of multinational technology firms packaging and ‘delivering’ online courses in competition with as well as cooperation with universities.

Face-to-face teaching still has a vital role to play

The report is overly optimistic about the benefits of educational technologies for students and industries, ignoring empirical evidence that whilst many students value the flexibility of online delivery, they retain a strong preference for some face-to-face contact with academics and fellow-students. This is particularly the case for undergraduates and international students who come to Australia to gain the benefits of English language and cultural immersion. Additionally, the language of ‘content’ used in the report de-professionalises academics by portraying them as knowledge transmitters and fails to recognise academics and students as co-producers of knowledge in a pedagogical relationship.

Soft skills are a big part of the future

Employers value the 21st Century soft or relational skills of communication, team work, interpersonal and intercultural understanding, problem solving and critical thinking that develop above and beyond any hard credentials. These are paradoxically not foregrounded by EY in its report but are a big part of our work as university educators.

Industry is not so easily prepared to invest in and with universities

The report is underpinned by an assumption that industry is prepared to invest in and with universities. Historically this has not been the case in Australia in terms of either investment in research or professional development. The issues that contribute to the notable lack of industry investment in research and development in Australia will not be addressed by reforms to the structure and function of the university. They are, instead, underpinned by broader structural issues such as de-industrialisation and lack of national industry policy amongst others.

Additionally, the report appears to assume that industry would want a role in developing curriculum with universities when there is no evidence that they would see this as part of their core business. Universities already know from the traditional areas of teaching and nursing, that work integrated learning on a large scale is expensive and complex for both universities and employers.

Markets alone should not be allowed to determine what knowledge universities produce

Finally, the report significantly underplays the role of the university in knowledge production, and the significance of this to teaching and research. Whilst the relationship between teaching and research is often problematised, universities still generate much of the knowledge that forms the basis for their courses. Knowledge that is produced in global knowledge hubs or elite research universities, as the report implies, will lack the local content and context that contemporary Australian students both demand and deserve.

Knowledge generated by Australian universities also serves wider purposes, as stated in the National Science and Innovation Agenda, which describes research as having social, environmental and other benefits as well as economic ones. Markets alone cannot be allowed to determine what knowledge is valued because this directly undermines the nature of the innovation-based society, which is a key focus of the Australian government and of all governments globally.

We believe EY’s report’s depiction of a purely instrumental and market-based university reflects its own commercial interests in education. In contrast, Australian universities must continue their role in educating the next generation of Australian professionals and researchers who can critically analyse how our lives are being reshaped by global and national forces including business.

Indeed, university-based expertise is central to democratic debate, more so now we are in a post truth era in which the authority of expertise is being challenged. Certainly, the financial reliance of universities on international students and government funding creates risks. In this context vice-chancellors are actively and continuously rethinking how to manage the complexity of heightened and competing responsibilities, demands and expectations of universities. There is little in the EY report Can Universities Today Lead Learning for Tomorrow that will assist in this process.


Dr Julie Rowlands is a senior lecturer in education leadership within the School of Education at Deakin University, Australia and a member of the Deakin strategic research centre, Research for Education Impact. Julie researches in the areas of education governance, education leadership, higher education systems, academic quality assurance, and organisational change, taking a critical sociology of education perspective to her work to explore dynamics of power. Recent publications include J Rowlands and M Ngo (forthcoming), ‘The north and the south of it: academic governance in the US, England and Australia’, Higher Education Research and Development; J Rowlands (2017) ‘Deepening understandings of academic and intellectual capital through a study of academic voice within academic governance’, Studies in Higher Education; J Rowlands (2017) ‘The domestic labour of academic governance and the loss of academic voice’, Gender and Education; and J Rowlands (2017) Academic Governance in contemporary Universities, Springer. Julie’s current research is focusing on the effects of academic workload models and research assessment on research practice.


Dr Jill Blackmore FASSA AM is Alfred Deakin Professor in the Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University and founding Director of the Centre for Research in Educational Futures and Innovation (2010-15). Her research interests include, from a feminist perspective, globalisation, education policy and governance; international and intercultural education; educational restructuring, leadership and organisational change; spatial redesign and innovative pedagogies; teachers’ and academics’ work, all with a focus on equity. Current higher education research focuses on disengagement with and lack of diversity in leadership, international education and graduate employability. Recent publications are J. Blackmore (2016) Critical Perspectives on Educational Leadership: Nancy Fraser. Routledge; Blackmore, J. Sanchez, M. and Sawers, N.(eds) (2017) Globalised Re/gendering of the Academy and Leadership, Routledge; J. Blackmore and J. Kenway (eds) (2017) Gender Matters in Educational Administration and Policy (Ed. 2), Routledge.