Analysis

Rethinking University Education In The Post Pandemic Period

The Fiji National University was reconstituted as a University in 2010 although its genesis began in 1885. The learning model has not changed much since the 19th century.
08 Mar 2021 09:13
Rethinking University Education In The Post Pandemic Period

The post-high school education we are providing to our Fijian and regional students in our Universities is not meeting our national needs. The University of Fiji may gain street cred (popularity) amongst disadvantaged students by declaring on its website that, ‘We are poor.’ USP may declare that it is ‘shaping Pacific futures’ while a regional conflict continues to hang on it like the Sword of Damocles. The Fiji National University may claim to be Fiji’s premier university while subsisting almost entirely on Government grants. The reality is that there is a robust conversation taking place amongst students, parents, industries and even Government about how University education should be re-conceptualised to deal with the ever changing local and global pandemic landscape and to produce learners who can adapt their professional skills to adjust to the new demands of the workplace, technology and consumer needs.

Questioning the notion of learning

The pandemic made us question the whole notion of schooling in the University. During the months that students were confined to their homes, the Ministry of Education acted quickly in providing Fijian high school students with online study notes and guiding questions. University students did most of their learning exclusively on online platforms. There were teething problems because Universities were still preoccupied with face-to-face learning or a blended mode requiring some face-to-face component. They did not adjust quickly to the ‘new normal’ where learners were confined to their homes for months. Universities in Fiji have yet to grasp the dynamics of online learning where illustrated lectures, discussions forums, student centred youtube and illustrated assignments can be posted. There is still a fixation on talking heads on videos and very long copious notes pasted on PowerPoint slides. Online learning can be fun but lecturers must adapt.

One positive aspect of the pandemic is the realisation that we need to de-school society. The traditional high school and University classroom has become obsolete. University lecturers for example prepare their teaching notes for a cycle of 6 months to 3 years. Knowledge is being churned out at a faster pace and the traditional brick and mortar learning institution is no longer adequate. We have also become painfully aware that the ‘teacher’ (lecturer) is no longer an adequate conduit for wisdom and knowledge for learners.  Lecturers will need to re-invent themselves for online platforms and to see themselves as facilitators of lifelong learning. Universities should also experiment with peer learning where other students provide teaching learning support.

FNU

The Fiji National University was reconstituted as a University in 2010 although its genesis began in 1885. The learning model has not changed much since the 19th century. To this day, a number of lecturers who are baby boomers still prefer writing handwritten teaching notes despite the advent of ICT. In one case, I found (by accident) that the notes I used for lecture notes (when I was a lecturer) before I got married is still being used 30 years to this day!

As a dual sector University, there is an urgent need to get out of the academic University model of 2- and 4-years traditional degree programs based on ‘types’ of degrees, research intensity, resources and student populations. We now have a diverse range of students who are farmers, parents, full time workers, and from disadvantaged backgrounds. They usually take more than 2 to 3 years or even longer to complete a trade certificate, diploma or associate degree.

The Fijian Government will have to change its University funding model based on EFTS of traditional academic students’ programs. If it does not, then it will be ‘business as usual.’ The trend is for shorter intensive courses providing specific competencies and delivered through modules. There is now lesser demand for traditional academic degrees. In Fiji and the Pacific, local lecturers and students are also openly questioning the Eurocentric models that underpin these degrees. While understanding the dynamics of the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ or the ‘Rape of the Sabine Women’ might be a good topic over the consumption of Mosel or Riesling wines, the knowledge is irrelevant in our Pacific situations. There is no pleasure in acquiring degrees where one can’t find employment. Most young learners are now going for competency-based TVET courses that lead to gainful employment.

Dual sector system

The Fiji National University with a dual sector system is in a dilemma; whether it should stay with the safe and uncreative model that it has sailed monotonously with from 1885 to 2010 (when it became a University) to 2021 and beyond. The signs are clear that learning outcomes must be based on quality and productivity based on proactive research that meets the needs of Fiji and the Pacific region. It seems immoral that when our nation’s existence is threatened by disease and by economic depression, that Universities have not risen to the challenge. There is, for example, no research on traditional medicinal plants that can be made into pharmaceutical products to combat tropical diseases. When most Universities make it part of their DNA to engage with corporate, multilateral and philanthropic groups for funding, our Universities rely almost exclusively on Government funding. This has to change immediately. Academics should get out of the mindset that they are a privileged class. They should be generating a substantial proportion of their 5 and 6 figure salaries. USP is probably on to a good thing by continuing to survive without the Fijian Government grants! A time will come when the Government will only provide 60% of a University’s recurrent budget with the balance being generated from other income streams.

Students questions

In the post pandemic period, students are questioning whether the University education they currently receive is worth the TELS money they are pumping into it. A purely face-to-face mode of University learning is seen as a liability especially with lecturers whose thinking seems ossified in yesterday’s ideas. One Dean boasted to me that he was not connected to any social media or online learning forums. And to think that we have aspirations of being a regional powerhouse of university innovation!

The Fiji National University must provide a number of flexible pathways. This will mean more technical certificates and TVET associate degrees that lead to high-demand jobs requiring specialized skills.

Industries have been lethargic

The industries (construction, engineering, manufacturing, retail, tourism) in Fiji have not helped matters. They need to constantly update their equipment and technologies to keep pace with global trends. Currently they continue to use outdated equipment. If they keep pace with global industry benchmarks, it will act as an impetus for our Fijian Universities to act accordingly.

In a dual sector University like FNU, the students’ prior learning should be factored in. Online Certificate, Diploma and Degree course offerings should provide pathways that will be from six months to 48 (or more). This will depend on learners’ circumstances or the state of their finances.

What we also have to understand is that machines (and computers) are getting smarter by the day. In a techno enhanced Fiji, workers will require not only the competency skills (to operate the machines) but also the values and empathy to be able to solve problems, be innovative, have analytical skills and be good communicators.

The pandemic has challenged our notions of University Education. The pandemic has been God-sent in challenging our assumptions about online learning, de-schooling society, not relying on Government grants and being sustainable. If Universities continue to be in self denial and demand Government grants as their entitlement then it is best that they close down and academics should use their lecture notes as compost.

Feedback: joseph.veramu@outlook.com



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