Starting a university in Indonesia

Indonesia is accelerating its drive to strengthen human capital and thereby better position itself economically. One component of this is inviting leading international universities to establish fully fledged campuses inside Indonesia. Monash University is the first to do so.

What will success look like? Success for Indonesia as a whole, success for the higher education sector in Indonesia and, indeed, success for Monash University. It’s a basic question, and one worth being clear about from the outset.

Monash Indonesia will commence operations in 2021 as a post-graduate university. Along with producing high-impact research, it will train Masters and PhD students and run short ’executive education’ programs. To begin with, it will focus in areas such as Data Science, Urban Design, Business Innovation, Public Policy & Management and Public Health.

The mission of Monash Indonesia is to make a clear and strong contribution to the further social, economic and technological advancement of Indonesia. My own view is that this is the fundamental benchmark by which the new campus will be judged.

The Government of Indonesia has been exceptionally supportive of the venture, but it will want to see results and see them soon. Early commentary in the institutional media and on social media reflects a mixture of excitement about something new for Indonesia, and to a lesser extent concern about possible competitive pressures on local institutions. 

Monash University is already well known in Indonesia and elsewhere for big research projects, such as eliminating Dengue fever and improving health and water in low income communities. The new campus in Indonesia is committed to forging strong research and education partnerships with a cross-section of public, private and Islamic universities. That work is starting, but local institutions will watch with more than passing interest to see how it pans out.

And for Monash University itself? Again in my view, most immediately, the focus will be on success with creating a vibrant academic community on campus, high performing and well satisfied graduates, and a powerful mix of industry partners that co-invest in big research and education initiatives which conspicuously contribute to the social, economic and technological advancement of Indonesia.

That, I would say, is what success looks like. It’s a big undertaking and expectations are high. Watch this space.

Out of the Box: Monash Indonesia

It’s been an exciting week for Monash University and anyone interested in higher education in Indonesia. During President Joko Widodo’s state visit to Australia, both the Prime Minister and the President announced that Monash University has been approved to establish Indonesia’s first foreign university branch campus: Monash Indonesia.

Monash Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Margaret Gardner whose initiative this is, was in Canberra for the state banquet and able to brief President Jokowi directly (below).

It’s also been a big deal for me personally: for the past twelve months my main priority has been developing a viable plan for a branch campus that would be acceptable to both the Indonesian government and Monash University.

I’ll post more in coming weeks and months about bringing Monash Indonesia to life, but today I’d like to highlight just how quickly this initiative has come together and, in particular, just how supportive the Indonesian government has been.

Many senior figures across government took the time to meet with me and then used their office to clear a way ahead.

Tech entrepreneuer turned Education Minister, Nadiem Makarim (above), played a pivotal role. So too did the President’s Chief of Staff, Moeldoko (below) — ensuring that different agencies came together and ironed-out regulatory wrinkles in a timely way.

Research & Technology Minister Bambang Brodjonegoro has been an early and active supporter. Also helpful was State Secretariat Minister, Pratikno. And Airlangga Hartarto — the Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs, Golkar party boss and Monash alumnus — has been a constant ally and booster.

Getting a plausible plan together and getting it approved is one thing. Converting that plan into a successful and fully functioning graduate university will be quite another.

In pursuing that mission over the next several years I hope never to lose sight of the founding purpose of Monash Indonesia: to make a strong and distinctive contribution to the further social, economic and technogical development of Indonesia.

Indonesia’s creative economy, success and self-censorship

A thriving “creative economy” has developed over the past decade in Indonesia. Novelists, musicians and film-makers of all kinds have been able to take advantage of digital media to reach new audiences, particularly among the young.

A shining example of this is the hugely popular and critically acclaimed novelist, singer and songwriter, Dewi “Dee” Lestari. She has published nine novels, including the hugely successful Supernova series, Filosofi Kopi and Aroma Karsa, several of which have been made into popular films. Her fiction and songs blend spirituality, contemporary social issues ranging from sexuality to coffee culture and exquisite language. Interestingly, she has also successfully experimented with digital delivery of her work.

We were treated to a compelling musical story-telling performance of an extract from Aroma Karsa at Monash University last night. For a short taste, try this.

The rise of Indonesia’s creative economy is not just a story of an explosion of talented individuals and new technology, it also reflects the continued expansion of the middle class as well as the decline of government censorship that democracy brought to Indonesia.

In conversation Dee celebrated the dramatic rise of Indonesia’s creative economy, noting that it was now becoming possible for at least some fiction writers to make a reasonable full-time living. But a point that caught the attention of many in the audience was her reference to the rise of what she called self-censorship or civic censorship.

While creative artists may not have as much to fear from the government these days, harsh attacks on social media from groups in society opposed to the themes a singer or a film-maker or a writer might address are taking their toll. The same social media that is enabling creative artists to reach new audiences is also enabling those hostile to themes an artist airs to attack and vilify them.

Dee gave the illustration of responses to her engagement with LGBTIQ issues in Supernova, and went on to say that creative artists needed to resist the pressures for self-censorship. She hoped that by producing compelling and highly engaging work, creative artists would be able to get past those who sought to suppress them and still reach the audiences that clearly hungered for their work.

As the inspiring rise of Indonesia’s creative economy begins to gain international attention, we are also given another reminder of how digital technology and social media are at once enablers and inhibitors.

Indonesia post-reformasi

Correspondence in Australian Foreign Affairs

“Retreat from Democracy?”

by Tim Lindsey

Andrew MacIntyre

Tim Lindsey’s excellent essay, “Retreat from Democracy?” (Australian Foreign Affairs 3, July 2018), lays out clearly just how much the political climate in Indonesia has changed over the past decade. The optimism about extending democratic reform is gone, as is the hope that systemic corruption might be wound back, and there is an increasingly conservative mood as religious chauvinism is fanned by Islamist hardliners.

Such changes are a cause for genuine concern. But the picture is not all bleak. Perspective and expectations make a difference. Compared to Indonesia’s recent past, the picture is depressing. But compared to the experiences of other young democracies, it is less so.

Democratic consolidation is rarely smooth. Young democracies typically undergo duress due to intense action and counter-action as reform is negotiated, to say nothing of the everyday political battles among competing economic, social and other sectional interests. Indonesia is no exception.

Earlier this year the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index registered a sharp fall in the quality of Indonesia’s democracy. Professor Edward Aspinall has documented the various areas in which reform in Indonesia has stalled or been eroded. While it is quite possible that Indonesian democracy could continue to deteriorate, at this stage the fundamental commitment to free elections and peaceful transitions between governments is holding. Political preferences have shifted in a conservative direction and intolerance has increased, but electoral democracy itself has endured.

The shift to the right has become starkly apparent in the last few years. President Joko Widodo’s shock announcement in August that conservative Muslim cleric Ma’ruf Amin would be his running mate in the April 2019 election is the most recent political tidemark. The crackdown on LGBTI communities and oft-heard anecdotes about Christians having to keep an ever lower profile, or of progressive Muslims being ostracised from their social media networks, are all manifestations of the new moral and social conservatism.

For anyone inside or outside Indonesia hoping for a strengthening of its democracy, this shift is troubling. What effect might it have on relations between Australia and Indonesia?

Any conceivable government in Indonesia will be a coalition of parties, and as such an amalgam of interests. So it is not clear that, for example, the rise of conservative Muslim groups will have a significant effect on economic policy beyond adding some extra weight to existing nationalistic arguments. But without doubt, the swing to the right means Australia should expect a more conservative stance from Indonesia on social issues. This will present challenging questions around values for a range of Australian organisations engaging in Indonesia – including, notably, universities. The treatment of religious minorities and LGBTI communities are conspicuous examples of Indonesia’s differing values. Issues around cultural identity and rights for minority groups are others.

In terms of strategy and defence, the new conservatism in Indonesia may, paradoxically, foster increased alignment between Canberra and Jakarta. The conservative Muslim political forces that drive intolerance of minorities advocate an equally strong distrust of China. This arises variously from longstanding antipathy towards Indonesians of Chinese descent, opposition to the way Beijing treats Chinese Muslims in Xinjiang, and a nationalistic reaction to the surge of Chinese foreign investment in Indonesia. Indonesia’s leaders and especially its military establishment have long been wary of China. The rising influence of conservative Muslim forces is likely to add a significantly stronger political base to this pre-existing policy orientation.

Ten years ago, when Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was at the height of his presidency, and the acute instability of the early post-Suharto years had been overcome, Douglas Ramage and I wrote a report, ‘Seeing Indonesia as Normal Country (as Lindsey notes in his essay). We highlighted how much things had improved, but argued that the bilateral relationship under Yudhoyono was as good as it was going to get for the foreseeable future. We did not forecast the extent of Indonesia’s swing to the right, but the core instinct was sound.

For Australian foreign policy interests, the single most important variable is Indonesia’s continued economic progress. This is the underpinning of its social and political fortunes. And here the prospects are hopeful. Although Indonesia seems unable to achieve growth rates of the best-performing Asian economies, sustained growth around 5 per cent annually is still good. If, as most analysts project, this can be maintained, the prospects for democracy enduring remain alive.

And in the longer term, while Indonesia has recently become less inclusive and less tolerant of diversity, there are still grounds for believing in what Ramage and I refer to as its “fundamental pluralism”. This is a reference to the long arc of the social history of the archipelago we know today as Indonesia and the effect of its geographic and cultural diversity. Yes, we must be concerned with Indonesia’s current realities, but its underlying diversity will not suddenly disappear, and can be counted on to assert itself over time.

Andrew MacIntyre is deputy vice-chancellor of global development and director of The Australian APEC Study Centre at RMIT University.

India’s Middle Class?

The Economist caused a stir recently with a cover story highlighting the extent to which the Indian middle class has been over-hyped as a ‘successor’ to the Chinese middle class. It had point. But there’s more to be said.

India has indeed made spectacular economic progress. But income distribution is more skewed than generally recognised and this has consequences.

Notwithstanding a huge total population that will shortly pass China, the size of India’s middle class is very much smaller and its purchasing power is less than half that of China’s. The Economist was at pains to point out that leading foreign firms expecting to find big consumer markets in India are being disappointed. Estimates of a middle class 300-400 million strong are frequently tossed about, but the mean GDP per capita is US$1,700 and eight in ten Indians earn less than this. This is not just a function of time, and China having taken off earlier.

The following chart helps to explain what’s going on in India: the top 10% has prospered disproportionately at the expense of the middle 40% and bottom 50%. In other emerging economies – including other high performing Asian economies – the picture is less skewed.

I’m interested in universities and global higher education markets. If big multinationals selling consumer goods are experiencing tougher than expected conditions in India, what might this mean for universities looking to engage?

Optimistic estimates put the number of Indians in post secondary education by 2020 as high as 42 million, but the competition among local institutions is already strong – there are some 35,000 colleges and 700 universities – and some Indian institutions are looking overseas to reach the global Indian diaspora. Prominent exemples include Amity University, BITS Pilani and Manipal Academy of Higher Education.

Foreign universities bring a distinctive value proposition to the Indian market. Australia is working hard on deepening engagement with India, and higher education is a prominent part of this effort. My home state of Victoria has recently launched an admirable India strategy. And my university is making good progress with its own strategy of building deep research and education partnerships with Indian institutions. Should we be lowering our hopes and expectations?

Certainly realism is essential. The number of families that can afford a premium international education will not be on the same scale as China any time soon. Furthermore, foreign universities seeking not just to receive students coming from India but to engage directly in India itself, face a very much more restrictive regulatory environment than in, say, China.

As against this, several points are worth keeping in mind. First, the structure of the global higher education market is fundamentally different to that of, say, mobile telephones or cars. Ours is an industry with a very large number of suppliers (universities) world-wide, each seeking only a tiny increment of available demand (students). Even though, in macro terms, we do indeed need to factor in the much smaller size of the addressable market in India than China, for individual universities the prospects are still promising.

Second, as in many other successful emerging economies, education is a high priority for Indian families: way ahead of regular middle class consumables.

Third, price is a key factor in determining the size of the addressable market: less expensive Chinese mobile phones are spreading much faster than premium competitors like the iPhone. Those foreign universities that are able to develop strong partnerships with local institutions and sustain price-points aligned with what the Indian market will bear, have reasonable prospects.

National higher education markets have distinctive characteristics and challenges, and India is no exception. The trajectory of India’s higher education market is different from that of China. As is the trajectory of its own higher education institutions and the regulatory environment that shapes them.

India may indeed be challenging, but some foreign universities will succeed in forging sustainable partnerships that enable them to make significant and distinctive contributions to India’s continued socio-economic development.

Is Singapore the world’s education laboratory?

How an ageing population and slow growth is driving dramatic education reform in Singapore – with fascinating results.  
Governments in many countries are talking about reforming their education systems to better equip graduates seeking work and to provide business with the skilled labour force for which it cries out.

Whether in Australia or Britain, India or Indonesia there are earnest declarations about the pressing need to ensure education systems serve social and economic imperatives more effectively.

In most cases the rhetoric is not matched with consequential reform action.

Singapore is a fascinating exception. It has launched a dramatic drive to reshape its post-secondary education system.

The reform push is not a passing thing: Singapore is taking these bold policy steps because it is being squeezed by demographic decline and sustained weak economic growth.

A ‘super aged’ society

The demographic challenge is severe. Singapore is very rapidly becoming a ‘super aged’ society. Other countries are grappling with the problem of an ageing society, but the change in Singapore is coming about very much faster than elsewhere. And strong public opposition to large scale immigration means that simply importing more foreign workers is not an electorally tolerable option.

These demographic pressures have been brought sharply into focus by the country’s uncharacteristic encounter with prolonged sluggish economic performance. Last year GDP growth was at its lowest and the unemployment rate was at its highest since the global financial crisis.

This amalgam of pressures, supplemented by the universal concerns about technological disruption and anti-globalization, has yielded remarkable governmental focus and resolve.

An ambitious national plan

In March, a top-level task force – the Committee on the Future Economy – delivered a comprehensive set of strategies, including education policy, to reposition the economy. It is an extraordinarily ambitious exercise in national planning.

Exceptionally high investment in support of elite universities has been a distinctive feature of Singapore’s education strategy for many years but what is striking about this reform is its emphasis on applied education and skills training.

A new super entity – SkillsFuture Singapore – has been created to guides people at all stages of their career with targeted education and skills programs, and to work closely with industry bodies to ensure alignment.

Applied universities and polytechnics have been given a major boost. There is a shift in emphasis from exhorting people to pursue academic distinction, to encouraging work-relevant learning and the need for continual reskilling.

And all Singaporeans over 25 have been given a S$500 credit to support pursuit of (approved) programs.

A window on the future?

Many academic institutions around the world resist the idea that the core role of a university is to prepare students for employment. But in Singapore, this idea is being given a sharper edge.

I take a keen interest in this, because my university has a very long-standing commitment to Singapore. But anyone interested in future trends in higher education should pay attention, because Singapore provides a window on the future.

Simply put, Singapore is now at the forefront of education policy innovation. Arguably, it has become the world’s leading ‘laboratory’ for bold education policy experiments.

Will this push work? Certainly Singapore has the political capability and budgetary resources to launch a systematic campaign of this sort. But after listening to a visiting senior Singapore official outline the changes this week, I found myself mulling on several questions.

Will, for example, the parents of school leavers look past traditional considerations of academic prestige?

How will students off all ages and stages respond to these sweeping plans and inducements?

And how will universities and other education providers, along with employers themselves behave?

Stay tuned. And watch the policy experiment play out.

The ups and downs of Asia’s universities

The recent release of the Times Higher Ed rankings for Asian universities makes for interesting reading. A summary heading of the most conspicuous developments would go something like: Singapore on top, Japan slides and Southeast Asia rises.

But it is worth digging deeper, as for all the heartache ranking schemes cause university administrators, they do contain a treasure trove of data and insight. This is the second time THE has conducted a ranking focused exclusively on Asian universities, and the number of institutions covered has expanded from 200 to 300.

This speaks to what is perhaps the most basic point: the very rapid expansion and upgrading of higher education institutions across Asia. This is not a sudden or startling development; it has been coming for a long time, driven by decades of rapid economic development.

Money, of course, matters. Wealthier Asian countries are concentrated towards the top of the list and poorer countries towards the bottom. And within any given country, older institutions that are more firmly established, tend to rank more highly than younger ones.

But there is more to it than this. Two other variables suggest themselves: intensity of government investment and the openness of a society to the flow of people and ideas.

Singapore comes out on top, with the National University of Singapore securing the #1 billing for the second time in a row, and Nanyang University of Technology coming in at #4. This is a spectacular achievement and reflects a determined drive by the Singaporean government and its university leaders over several decades, and particularly the last dozen years or so.

As anyone familiar with the Singaporean higher education scene knows, the level of government investment has been truly eye-watering. But although money is fundamental, it is not enough. Singapore has also become much more open to the flow of people and ideas — particularly in the broad science and technology domain.

Contrast this with Japan. As a wealthy and highly advanced economy, Japan is home to a range of magnificent universities, with lengthy and distinguished histories. However, as in many other of the advanced economies of the OECD, government investment in higher education has become increasingly stretched. Important too, is the fact Japan has been less outward-looking in terms of the international flow of people and ideas. Young Japanese are less likely to travel and language seems to be a bigger barrier in Japan than in many other non-English speaking countries. A more comprehensive discussion would add that the regulatory constraints on Japanese universities – although certainly changing – make it hard for them to compete and adapt.


Chinese universities, of course, feature prominently as do South Korean institutions. In both cases, the scale and intensity of government investment, supported by relatively strong flow of people and ideas (again, especially in the science and technology domain). An interesting case to watch will be #3 ranking Hong Kong University, as it seeks to find a way to maintain its long record of academic excellence – including in the social sciences and humanities – with evolving political context of Hong Kong’s integration with China.

Perhaps the most encouraging feature of the Asian university rankings is the way other Southeast Asian universities are beginning to fire. The same underlying drivers are at play. The governments of, for instance, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, have not made the sustained major strategic efforts that have underpinned the meteoric rise of the likes of Singapore, South Korea and China. Nevertheless they are all coming up – reflecting the foundational reality of sustained rapid economic development.

Of Southeast Asian nations, Thailand has the largest number of institutions listed (ten), Malaysia has the most highly placed (#59: University of Malaya) and Indonesia emerges as the country with the greatest potential. International education specialist, Simon Marginson, dubs Indonesia the “Brazil of Southeast Asia”.

Viewed across the greater Asian region, university rankings emerge as a fascinating barometer of the interplay of economics, politics and culture, together with institutional leadership. You can be sure that the number of institutions covered in the next THE ranking will expand yet again. The intriguing part will be to see how the rankings progress, both in terms of individual insitutions and national systems of higher education as a whole.

From Singapore to China

Last week I was visiting two of RMIT’s priority countries, Singapore and China.

In Singapore, my focus was on building personal and institutional links.  The personal links were with Australia’s new High Commissioner, Bruce Gosper, as well as significant alumni and philanthropic contacts.   On the institutional front, it was about opening an important new institutional partnership with Singapore’s 5th autonomous university, the Singapore Institute of Technology and working with our longstanding partner, the Singapore Institute of Management on a proposal for RMIT & SIM to deliver ‘micro-credentials’ in support of Singapore’s efforts to reskill its workforce.

The changes taking shape in Singapore are really quite fascinating, and I will return to them later with a more substantial communication. I’ll focus here on the China leg of the trip, particularly the visit to Tianjin.

On this visit, the core objectives were to formalise the deepening research partnership RMIT has with Tianjin University (in Advanced Automotive Technologies and Design Innovation & 3D Printing) and to explore possibilities for productive links with the surge of entrepreurial and technological innovation taking place in Tianjin’s Binhai New Area. Thanks to our long-standing leaders’ training program with the Tianjin Municipal government, we have a high reputation with senior officials there. (This has proved particularly valuable following the fall of the former mayor.)

RMIT has built up wonderful links in China over many years. The emphasis now is to focus our efforts through what we’re calling our ‘Three Rivers’ strategy: the Pearl river in the south, the Yangtze in the middle and the Haihe river in the north. Tianjin is on the Haihe river and a sister-city for Melbourne.

Tianjin is doing very well indeed; last year economic growth there was among the very highest of any region in China. The Binhai New Area has multiple precincts – ranging from a Free Trade Area to Science & Technology parks.

The part that particularly caught our attention was the Sino Singapore Tianjin Eco-City precinct: a diverse, green and ultra-connected new development. Among other things, it’s home to one of Binhai’s suddenly flourishing clusters of incubators that are nurturing a wide array of start-ups. We came away with a plan to establish a sister-incubators framework, to parallel the sister-cities relationship.

It’s hard not to be impressed by the scale of what is taking place in the greater Tianjin area. We saw real opportunities for RMIT to make a valuable contribution to its social and economic development, in ways that could have very exciting implications for our students in Melbourne and elsewhere. This sentiment was very much reinforced in conversations we had in Beijing with the Ministry of Education and Australia’s Ambassador, Jan Adams and Minister-Counsellor for Education,  Katherine Vickers.

The following short video interview with RMIT Vice-Chancellor, Martin Bean, gives a sense of the excitement he and I both felt .

Visiting Gunditjmara country

Visiting Gunditjmara Country

I recently returned from one of the most mind-opening trips on which I have ever been: a visit to Gunditjmara country in western Victoria (pink territory, bottom left on map).img_0024

Along with nine other members of the University’s executive, I got to spend two days meeting with both elders and young people, being shown around their traditional lands and hearing their stories. The visit was undertaken as one small, but significant, component of the University’s intensifying commitment to the national need to advance the cause of reconciliation.

Reconciling the hopes and narratives of the first inhabitants of a land with those of the people who came later is a major challenge almost everywhere the issue exists. In Australia we still struggle mightily with it. This university has recently taken major steps to intensify its efforts to accelerate the process of reconciliation. And the inspirational Stacey Campton who heads RMIT’s Ngarara Willim Centre is a powerful catalyst for action and optimism.

Our visit was deeply moving. All of us were emotionally affected by accounts of the tragedies and suffering that followed the arrival of European settlers. Perhaps the most graphic episode of this was the massacre of Aboriginal people in 1834 following a clash over rights to a whale harpooned by settlers and brought ashore to a beach just outside Portland.

Also striking were accounts of the harsh realities of life for Aboriginal people forced to live on missions, such as the Lake Condah Mission (opened in 1867). And yet harsher still were the realities of life for those excluded from the missions and other sanctioned settlements. Having sorrowfully outlined the hardships and enduring consequences of mission life, Gunditjmara elder Auntie Maude went on to say “But if it wasn’t for the mission, we might not have survived at all.”

Our discussions were not all about past tragedies and their enduring consequences. We also learned about fullsizerender the remarkable remnant stone dwellings and sophisticated seasonal stone fish traps in Gunditjmara country – a surprise given the conventional wisdom about the nomadic existence of Aboriginal people in Australia (see story and recontruction).

I was especially interested to learn how the local Aboriginal community centre, Winda Mara, is structured as a company and operates to provide local health and welfare services and help launch Aboriginal into labour market. This challenged some of my preconceptions. Meeting the young men and women working at and with Winda Mara, and hearing their stories and outlooks on life was a source of hope and optimism for a better future.

Running through everything in our visit to Gunditjmara country were the intertwined issues of race, identity and the possibilities of reconciliation. For me, perhaps the most powerful comment of our visit was the stark declaration of visiting elder, Uncle Mick (himself a survivor of being stolen or kidnapped from his parents at an early age): “There is only one race on this planet, and that is the red-blooded human race.”
I left Gunditjmara country with whole different outlook. Certainly I have a much sharper appreciation of the suffering Aboriginal people have endured, but I also have a clearer sense of hope and possibility.

Let me give the last word to my wonderful colleague, Stacey Campton. In a short clip, she spoke with me in a moving way on the shore of beautiful Lake Bridgewater, and we ended on a theme to which I will return: how we hold together the imperative of embracing Uncle Mick’s injunction about there being only one human race, with our desire for also belonging to particular cultures and communities.


Employment, education and back to that new Adidas plant

For many years it has been widely accepted that there is a strong causal connection between additional years of formal education and likely future income.  Simply put, data from around the world showed that, on average, university graduates could be expected to earn significantly more than those who did not proceed to university.

That connection is becoming weaker. At the same time as the actual cost to students of higher education has been rising in many countries, the returns have become less clear cut.  The data from the US are particularly stark: whereas in the latter twentieth century the average wages of university graduates rose significantly, the average wages of those who only completed secondary school were static; however between 2002-14 while the average wages of high school graduates remained almost static, the average wages of college graduates actually declined.

Data of this sort underscores complaints frequently heard in Australia, the United States and many other countries, that universities are failing to prepare graduates adequately for the world of work. Such concerns have come to take on a sharper edge as the actual cost to students (or their families) of attending university has risen sharply.

Recent articles by the The Economist on Learning and earning and Established education providers vs new contenders provide a handy digest of some of the main causal factors at play here and the wider implications for tertiary education.  The central message is that whether one is in higher or lower skilled work, employees need to be continually reskilling themselves over the course of their working lives if they want to remain competitive in the labour market.

How this ongoing education need will be met is a key question, for at the same time universities around the world are being assailed for underperformance in preparing students for employment, employers themselves are funding much less on-the-job training than in the past.

The net effect of this is large scale unment demand from prospective and current employees seeking to enhance their work-related skills. And technology is enabling new and and existing education providers to experiment with new ways of addressing this unment demand.

I’m particularly interested in thinking about the implications of the evolving relationship between education and employment, and the business model of universities.  And this is where my post last week my previous post on a new Adidas plant in Germany may tie in to the changing economics of post-secondary education.

For some years we’ve been talking about digital disruption in higher education, the rise of for-profit providers, the ‘unbundling’ of the university experience and the emergence of micro-credentials and digital badging.  This is playing out in different ways in different countries, depending on the local regulatory context. But a critical common ingredient is the interplay of economic pressures and technological enablement resulting in increased specialisation in the internal operations of educational organizations and greater responsiveness to market demand.

In the for-profit space, the likes of Coursera, Udacity and have received a good deal of attention in recent years. Newer to me at least, is the rapid rise of firms like General Assembly (offering intensive in-class courses in coding) and  Pluralsight (offering intensive online video-based professional courses).

Universities are experimenting too.  Arizona State’s much acclaimed success with online delivery has earned it the US News and World Report’s most innovative university award for two successive years. Here at RMIT, we’re also launching new initiatives – in collaboration with specialist private sector partners – for online masters programs, digital badging of employment-enhancing skills for our current students and industry-specific stackable micro-credentials for workers looking to acquire new skills in response to changing labour market requirements.

Increasingly, a key differentiator for all education providers looking to serve people worried about employment, seems likely to be how quickly and effectively they can respond to the changing needs of particular industries. Just as Adidas is beginning to replace labour-intensive sports factories with 3D printing and robotics driven plants that enable it to be much more responsive to changing customer preferences, so too education providers are likely to focus increasingly on the  responsiveness of their operating models.

The for-profits will be the first movers. The earlier mentioned Pluralsight, for instance, seeks to optimize its catalogue of educational  videos by compensating the subject experts who create them on the basis of the number of subscribers per video. A model of that sort might suit a highly focused start-up educational venture, but what about universities with their wider social mission and dual focus on education and research?

It may not yet be a large scale phenomenon, we are likely to see growing numbers of universities releasing academics from traditional teaching responsibilities and instead asking them just to develop the content for new (hopefully) sought after courses.  Once developed, delivery of this course content will be handled by a different set of online pedagogy specialists – for so long as there is sufficient demand. This would give the academic greater time to specialize in research and the conception of courses.  And it may allow universities (like high-end sports shoe manufacturers) to conceive, design and bring to market new course offerings much more rapidly.

Over time, a model of this sort seems likely to see the number of academics a university needs decline and the number of online pedagogy specialists grow. It’s a model marked by greater specialization of function in which universities – and individuals academics – focus increasingly on only those activities they can perform more effectively than any other provider.  And it’s a model marked by the increasing embeddedness of for-profit practices and specialist sub-contractors in what have core tenured academic functions within traditional universities.

Brave new world.