Politicians have a habit of being dazzled by new shiny things, particularly anything hi-tech that may solve a political problem.
For Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge, universities can wean themselves off their financial reliance on international, mainly Chinese, students by moving courses online.
After successive Coalition governments have shrunk real funding, leaving many universities little choice but to develop a lucrative market in international students, Mr Tudge now has concerns about the extent of the sector, particularly the dominance of one source country that is proving problematic.
With the pandemic closing international borders, the sector, which was worth more than $1 billion a year to the ACT economy, has been devastated, but Mr Tudge believes universities should fill the gap by deploying the power of the internet rather than expecting a return to business as usual post-COVID-19.
Putting aside the various issues around university funding, access and the international student market itself, simply pushing courses online and relying on the internet to deliver them is fraught, similar to public service agencies and businesses vacating their offices for Zoom-led operations.
While the internet allowed study and work to continue from home during the social restrictions and lockdowns, the experience had its ups and downs. It sparked a fierce debate about productivity and the importance of human connection.
Many universities, including the ANU and University of Canberra, already conduct courses online. The experience for many students is very different from the pre-internet era when campus life, as much as what happened in lectures and tutorials, played a pivotal role in their education.
Many students now have full-time jobs and minimal requirements to even be on campus.
Students used to complain about overcrowded lectures and the lack of a relationship with lecturers and tutors. Now courses can have hundreds of remote students who will never meet the people teaching them.
They still come out the other end with a degree, but one wonders what may be missing.
Can the Zoom tute or online lecture provide the same qualitative experience offered by the Socratic tradition and the interaction of ideas more readily attained in face-to-face learning?
Can it offer the deep learning that a university is supposed to confer and provide the space for one’s own ideas and preconception to be challenged?
The danger is that fundamental educational standards can be eroded, and universities become degree factories spitting out workplace widgets that ironically might not even be adequately prepared for a role.
Online learning may suit some subjects and not others, and ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt, responding to Mr Tudge’s comments, noted that science-based degrees require on-campus lab work.
He also stressed that a whole-campus experience is a key component of the ANU’s pitch to students.
Then there are the sheer logistical issues of synchronising online activities when there are students in different locations around the globe, the internet’s own capriciousness and vulnerability to power outages, and being subject to government control, such as with the Great Firewall of China.
Some on-campus students complain that hybrid degrees inhibit their ability to make in-person follow-up inquiries or elicit further advice from lecturers as all students need to be treated equally and have equal access.
Some online students also report higher stress levels and a sense of isolation.
If they follow Mr Tudge’s advice, the temptation for universities is to maximise earnings by multiplying online courses and enrolments at the expense of on-campus offerings.
There is no doubt that the internet has changed business practices and the very idea of the university. It has opened up access and made education possible for more students, especially for those in remote locations.
But an over-reliance on it, just like in other settings, degrades the human experience and fosters dissociation.
If anything, in this increasingly hi-tech world, the teacher-student relationship, from kindergarten to university, should be fostered even more. Before expanding online courses, perhaps there should be more research into the student experience, the quality of learning and the eventual outcomes, including when graduates enter the workforce.
The internet, like wine, can be a good servant but a poor master.