The Mirror University 2: Safe Spaces to Succeed: Designing for the future states of higher education participation and engagement

This is the second of a series of blogs that reflect on the educational and organisational challenges facing universities as they navigate intersecting existential, epistemic crossroads. I have called the series ‘The Mirror University’ for several reasons. The Mirror Universe is an alternate reality from the cultural phenomena that is Star Trek, in which people who exist in the prime universe have ‘evil’ alternates in the mirror universe. These alternates maintain the structures, relationships, roles and even identities of the ‘prime’ characters but exhibit traits, morals and behaviours that are the anthesis of the higher moral ground taken by our heroes. The mirror university maintains the structures, organisation, practices, and mythologies of what we understand to be a higher education institution but behaves in ways that are the antithesis of the ways of being they aspire to.

 The mirror university is a construct.
It doesn’t represent any single institution.
It is not an allegory for the overarching influence of ‘management’.

The aspirational contradictions create a sense of emotional and idealistic liminality for those whose personal, intellectual, or professional identity is deeply rooted in the altruistic conceptions of university as a site of transformational social good for the community, our students, and the academy itself.

The past is a lesson, not a prison– Generation X by Douglas Coupland

University teaching and learning practice is a strangely static phenomenon. Many of the tropes, established ways of doing and entrenched policy and infrastructure supports modes of teaching that have underpinning (and sometimes dominant) elements that are centuries old. These practices are often passionately defended in the literature and in the popular press (see Fulford & Mahon, 2020 in defence of the lecture, French et al., 2023 on the written exam and Stevens et al., 2021 on the debates regarding the efficacy of online and face-to-face education). It has also become part of the public policy discourse with politicians arguing for or against the cultural and pedagogical positions of the academy (see the famous tweets below by Nadim Zahawi and Michelle Donelan in the UK from 2022 and this report from the Australian higher education regulator TEQSA, 2020).



Counter-positioning, critique or challenge to these dominant pedagogical paradigms is often brushed aside with a wide spectrum of dismissive anecdotal assertion (Practice X has worked for centuries; practice Y made me the person I am today, online teaching is a lazy form of education) or through the parochial citing of evidence in literature, often aggregated in unevidenced ways. In the culture of uncertainty and precarity gripping universities in these febrile financial and political times, challenging the ‘basics’ of teaching and learning seems indulgent and dangerous. There are a dozen other crises that require the attention of academic staff that only add the burdens and pressures of teaching. But this reactive entrenchment of practices is hiding a highly visible (in postgraduate terms) and emerging (in undergraduate terms) crisis of its own – student recruitment and the value proposition of a higher education award to the generations now coming and those yet to arrive at university.

This is not to say that higher education practitioners have not innovated their epistemological and pedagogical approaches to teaching and learning. But the core principles, the dominant methodologies, and the ontologies of higher education as it has always been delivered remain deeply structuralised. In times of great crisis, when universities had to change their ways, the gravitational pull of snapping back to these old ways, the practices that felt comfortable and safe, was inescapable. As a result, the pedagogical toolkit of practice is quite threadbare. Even in the context of a modal step-change like online learning, design and delivery, innovations are predicated on the assumptions of content (lecture), consideration and repetition (tutorial) and assessment. These are the practices we must ‘translate’ to a different medium, rather than rethink them for an entirely different context.

The theoretical spine of our pedagogy is equally entrenched and accepted as unarguable truth (see Bryant, 2024). This is in part because like a lot of good theory, it is simple to apply, explains or reasons away complexity and calms doubts about the efficacy of pedagogical decision making. Each time a practice becomes an accepted truth, innovation becomes fragmented to the functional, operational, or marginal level. We don’t challenge the premise; we repaint the walls. Flipped learning did not challenge the primacy of content in higher education. It just moved it online. The innovation that could have arisen from flipped learning pedagogies were deeply limited by the rusted-on intransigence of the lecture space to do anything other than enable broadcast communications. Lecturers still wanted to deliver something, even if it was question and answer sessions to a theatre slowly emptying of students week by week. Trying to change the norms of teaching at scale has just become too hard. The result is that students are reasoning and sharing their own challenged value propositions for commencing or completing a university degree, on social media, with each other, through student satisfaction surveys and most critically in industry and with their employers as they progress their careers.

  • Degrees have limited life spans that enable a transactional approach in direct relation to the gaining of my first graduate job.
  • Degrees are rooted in theoretical and practical ontologies that are outdated and not relevant to my career and my life.
  • I am not intellectually stimulated by sitting in a lecture theatre and watching someone read five-year-old PowerPoint slides.
  • I don’t have the time or the money to complete a postgraduate degree when I can access what I need for free from online sources.
  • The modes of learning at university are not engaging, inspiring, relevant, or mindful of my life, my ambitions, and my wellbeing.

Why did higher education become so bound by the structures of absolutism? Why does the future have to look like a version of our past to have value for these experiencing it in the present or the future? What happens when things we do stop being relevant to the people who we do it for and with? What happens when the ‘customer’ stops buying or needing our ‘product’ (to use the language of the neoliberal institution)? Innovations at the margin won’t cut it. We need to create space for a radical, codesigned and transformative reimagination of how we design, deliver, and assess higher education that rethinks from the ground up what is working and what is not for the next twenty or more years of student and societal need. This is not a prediction that we are facing, the evidence is there in front of us, and the risks arising from this evidence are existential.

Evidence 1: Declining participation rates

The Australian Universities Accord report (2024) has identified declining (or what they described as subdued) participation rates in university programs as a whole and more specifically in low socio-economic communities (SES). The report identified that ‘between 2021 and 2022, commencing domestic higher education enrolments declined overall (10.4%), and in specific cohorts: low SES students (11.7%), regional, rural, and remote students (8.1%) and First Nations students (8.0%). The UK is not experiencing the same decline, although growth rates have slowed as they have in other countries (see Bolton, 2024). International student enrolments in undergraduate programs have experienced a sharp decline in response to a more hostile policy environment from the Sunak government and changes arising from Brexit. In both countries, postgraduate enrolments have been in a steeper decline since the pandemic with measurable decreases in international and domestic enrolments that have not been arrested by the surfeit of micro-credentials and for-profit online provision.

There is a lot to unpack here. Cost of living, policy changes, higher fees, strong job market are all significant contributors to these figures. The reality is that millions of young people still apply to and enrol in higher education every year, both as domestic students but also moving overseas to be international students in large markets like Australia, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. There is evidence though that the perceived value of undertaking a university degree is also declining. Kaplan (2023) argues that in the context of the US higher education sector  ‘the converging trends of a competitive labor market, ballooning university tuitions, new online learning alternatives, and fast-changing job roles has created a tipping point in the perceived value of college degrees.’  Wilkinson & Wilkinson (2023) note that the declining value of a higher education experience in the UK has been exacerbated by marketisation, with students ‘perceiving of themselves and presenting themselves as educational consumers who pay for a service and expect that service to be delivered’. The Universities Accord pointed to data that argues that the proportion of Australians who value higher education and believe universities are doing a ‘good job’ fell from 78.9% in 2008 to 70.6% in 2023 (Biddle, 2023).

Evidence 2: Declining engagement

The MOOC ‘revolution’ changed the way institutions rationalised attrition and retention. It suddenly became OK to accept dropouts as high as 95% if the barriers to entry and exit were low. The ‘ends’ of a drip-fed pipeline of enrolments into stacked full-fee programs justified the ‘means’ of thousands of the students who dropped out, their own perspectives on the value of university challenged by the poor experience (see Goopio & Cheung, 2021). Universities around the world are reporting student disengagement with lectures, with assessment and with the usually highly valued tutorial experience (see Williams, 2022 and Chipchase, et al., 2017). Larger institutions with high staff/student ratios are finding the metricisation of student satisfaction challenging as scale makes personalisation and one-to-one engagement difficult to deliver effectively (Gannaway, et al. 2017 and Bryant, 2023).

The result of this disengagement from students who do choose to enrol is that those with wellbeing challenges, financial and personal complexity, learning diversity and physical and mental disabilities can fall between the cracks of support, teaching, and learning. The passivity of the learning experience, the dissonance between marketing promise and academic reality, the risks and impacts of getting lost in the crowd and the intersecting pressures (and opportunities) of work, life, play and learning all lead to decreased engagement (see Gerritsen, 2023 and Nurmalitasari et al., 2023) increasing the dropout rate from units and programs that incur substantial and lasting financial penalties on students.

Through the looking glass

How universities responded to the political, public and some would argue pedagogical pressures to return to campus post-pandemic was a fascinating case study in the role of the past, the present and the future in how we collectively operate. Outside of the frequently unevidenced assertions about the relative performance of students against grade metric standards prior to and then during the remote/online teaching during the pandemic, a significant proportion of the public discourse was driven by the overwhelming belief that face-to-face learning is simply better than whatever it was we did during the pandemic. It is better for students, better for staff, better for the campus and the institution and perhaps even, better for society. Many of us would have heard the lyrical waxing about the inherent romanticism of the busy campus, bustling lecture theatres, staff, and students in earnest conversation over the relative merits of Proust in the coffee shop and labs full of white coated academics leading experiments.

Even with the snap back taking teaching and learning back to the heady days of our 2019 high, and the succeeding crisis of generative AI entrenching high stakes written exams, the imagined and much hyped campus experience that delivers in the same ways and teaching the same things just isn’t resonating with the next generations of university students. Boomers have long abandoned the need for higher education and Generation X are into the tail-end of their careers. According to Deloitte (2023) millennials and Generation Z will make up 70% of the workforce by 2025. They are generations wanting to find better work/life balances. They want to build and apply the skills of adaptability, flexibility, creativity and responsibility to their work and the ways in which they choose to live their lives. The rigid pedagogical and disciplinary boundaries of higher education are deeply out of alignment with the skills expectations and values of these generations (see Mahesh, et al., 2022 and Bunch, 2019) . We must adapt our epistemological and engagement approaches sooner rather than later, or risk obsolesce.

Our whole operating model of higher education is out of sync with the generations of students who are entering undergraduate and postgraduate education. That doesn’t mean we are completely missing the point or trying to fit round pegs into square holes. But I ask you to compare the ways in which we do higher education with the need for flexibility and adaptability, the micro-fragmentation of content and immediacy of access to an overwhelming amount of information, the immersion in digital, not as an add-on, but as a tool, sociality and work/life balance, a deep resonance with things and causes that matter and a fierce independence of identity and meaning. What we offer in terms of disciplinary knowledge, curricular or program innovation and or pedagogical innovation is not landing in ways that increase participation, satisfaction, or resonance. We offer a transactional experience that doesn’t extend past the achievement of the first job and if that first job can be achieved without three years and thousands of dollars of debt, then why go to university?

Our pedagogical approaches are out of alignment with the pressures of work, life play and learning. Whether it’s the semester structure, timetabling inflexibility, the mode of delivery, types of assessment or the artifice of the teacher as expert and the student as empty vessel, the aspirational and transformational ambition of a higher education degree is getting lost. We can’t afford to have students voting with their feet (or their laptop). Lag times are narrowing and change needs to be more rapid and agile. The slow-moving behemoth cannot take years to design a new program or adapt to student needs or get down and dirty with an authentic co-design process.

Our lens of higher education experience whilst relevant cannot be the only one we use to design our future experiences. We frame the conversation about the future with our perspectives of education, but the world is not the same and more importantly neither are we. We have already realised the value of higher education. Hindsight is 20/20. If all we tell our students is how these experiences ‘worked for us so they will work for you‘, then students will feel disconnected, outside of the community created by and for their parents and with expectations (hurdles) in place created by them, no wonder a degree is transactional, participating in assessment is transactional and being part of the university not significantly different.

Imagine the 18-year-old you, sitting nervously in your stonewash jeans and daffy duck t-shirt in a huge pastel coloured lecture theatre waiting for your first marketing lecture. Now hear the words of the lecturer. ‘Welcome to marketing 101, this will be taught in the same way I was taught marketing, with the same lectures and the same tutorials, and assessed in the same way with a high-stakes final exam, because look at me now, I am a marketing lecturer and an expert in marketing! You will experience the ways of teaching and learning and have the same experiences as I did in 1954. Have a great semester and remember kids, don’t vote for (Menzies, Eden, Eisenhower).’

There is no ‘simply better’ in higher education and there is no past and present, there is just the future. To be bound to the past, cements us to an experience that is only visible through memory, which is a highly unreliable frame of reference. Memories are also personal and everyone, students, and staff, have a right to their own memories. But equally, to ignore the past dooms us to repeat the failures over and over again. If we don’t respond to the challenges posed by being out of sync, we are at risk of being even further out of alignment to the generation coming next. Generation Alpha. They are an entirely different proposition, and they are now forming their views on what their future looks like, and whether it needs to include three more years of study and a massive debt. They are the children of millennial parents and they have been raised on their values and experiences. The evidence is certainly pointing to millennials dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the efficacy of postgraduate study.

If we are to increase participation and arrest the decline, we must rethink our approach to education not from the fringes and not in reaction to the wave after wave of existential angst brought on by the cadence of crisis. We need to engage in a radical co-design of the very experience of higher education. We need to be challenging every assumption of our pedagogical design, from the degrees we offer, to the ways we engage in teaching, learning and assessment to the ways in which we credential and leverage reputation for recruitment. This is not an easy proposition to bring about at an institutional level. It will require a whole of academy approach that enables the voices across disciplines to share what works with each other and with students and industry and find ways in which trans disciplinarity develops new third spaces of strategic innovation. It will require space to heal and be insulated from the rapid pinball reactivistism of the cadence of crisis. It will require brave, engaged and trusting leadership that knows change takes time and people are already bruised from years of change and need the support and resources to innovate. It would take a whole different blog article to discuss the notion of the safe space to succeed, but building such a thing engenders a culture of rewarding innovations that spark rhizomatic change, builds ecosystems of engagement and connection and forms communities that evoke deep and authentic senses of belonging and resonant learning. In a future blogpost coming soon the Disruptive Innovations in Business Education blog I will outline the principles behind a design state I call the Adaptive Learning Ecosystem being deployed at the University of Sydney Business School.

Mirror University – Continues on with the principle that the foundational pillars of a higher education experience are immutable, in part because we have invested billions in buildings, systems and agreements that entrench these practices as established and simply too hard to change, labelling those who seek to challenge them as troublemakers or not understanding what it means to deliver an effective student experience. Undergraduate and postgraduate enrolments continue to decline and micro-credentials and online learning delivered using the same pedagogical foundations continue to be unprofitable.

Prime University – Engages with the reality that universities must evolve and adapt to the changing social, cultural, and economic futures they are facing. They create an environment in which safe spaces to succeed are enabled and staff, students, and the community co-design a radical, aspirational, and future forward redesign of the foundations, practices, and assumptions of higher education, building on the successes of the past (and not rebuilding from the ground up every time). Their aim is to deliver a university experience relevant to the students and industries of the future and create an environment in which transformation and impact are resonant long past the first degree or next career milestone.

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