When Professor Giselle Byrnes received an invitation to moderate the 75th Anniversary Debate: The University of the Future at ANU, she knew she had to accept.
Having worked for the higher education sector in both Australia and New Zealand, as an historian and senior university executive, Giselle saw this invitation as a timely opportunity to reflect on the purpose and role of universities. Moreover, her Trans-Tasman experiences have provided her with the ability to compare the trajectories of universities in both countries.
Giselle, currently Provost at Massey University in New Zealand, tells On Campus how topical the theme of the debate - University of the future - is within the higher education sector.
Today, universities are faced with an array of challenges that will inevitably shape the future of the institution - hybrid and online learning, cybersecurity, climate change and political instability.
As moderator of the 75th Anniversary Debate, Giselle plans to raise these issues within two broad discussion points.
She intends to discuss the social license of universities to operate within the current context. In thinking about the future, Giselle wants to highlight the urgent need for universities to restate their value as "curators of knowledge" and places of learning.
"Universities are training the next generation of citizens who will have the necessary skillsets to navigate a changing and complex world," Giselle says.
By reaffirming the virtues of universities, and their role in producing new knowledge and driving research for public good, Giselle says she wants to 'speak back' to the rising tide of scepticism around evidence, knowledge, and the role of the expert.
As a current example, she cites the COVID-19 pandemic where university researchers are at the forefront of advising governments and helping communities to navigate the pandemic; yet this is occurring in a context where 'alternative facts' and 'fake news' gain equal traction.
"I want the panel to explore this assault on evidence and the rising scepticism towards knowledge," Giselle says.
Secondly, Giselle plans to discuss the increasing competition between private providers and universities, and what this tension will mean for the future of the university experience.
As a critical implication of the pandemic, universities will be further challenged by online private providers in delivering quality learning experiences for students.
While an advocate for blended models of education that support access, equity and excellence, Giselle wants to also highlight the "enormous value of being on campus", and to reaffirm the strong interpersonal component that would be lost if online learning was to become the sole focus of the future.
In the years to come, Giselle believes that universities must amplify the vital point of difference that defines the university experience against other providers - the research-teaching nexus. In addition, universities must constantly orient their attention to student-focused learning.
As a final remark, Giselle says that she is enormously optimistic about the ability of universities to navigate the complex world in which we find ourselves.
"We need to think of the last few years as being positive disruption for our sector and look towards innovating for the future. Going forward, we need to reorient our future and find a way forward."