Sunday, October 28, 2012

Digital humanities and the future of universities

Are we really going to let accountants
decide the future of universities?
It's been an eventful few weeks in Australian higher education. The Conversation launched a series of articles exploring the future of higher education, culminating in a symposium on Tuesday 22 October in collaboration with the Office for Learning and Teaching.

The same day, the federal government announced a midyear budget that included cuts of around $1 billion dollars to the university sector.

On Wednesday 23 October, an apocalyptic Ernst & Young report investigating the University of the Future decreed that "over the next 10-15 years, the current public university model in Australia will prove unviable in all but a few cases".

The report was immediately critiqued by academics and policy makers, many of whom argued the conclusions were not based on robust evidence - noting the lack of depth and omission of several previous studies - and questioned the motivations, bias and vested interests of a large accounting firm. Australian senator and higher education spokesperson, Lee Rhiannon, slated the report as a "gloom and doom picture designed to grease the way for the private sector to profit from universities" insisting that the "the challenges facing public university education in Australia can be best met by increased government funding to restore decade long cuts".

There is no doubt that Australian higher education is in dire need of new business models. A real commitment to change and innovation is required to meet the challenges facing the  sector.  But are we really prepared to let a large accountancy firm dictate this future?

The new digital economy requires new ways of thinking and the creation of new spaces within universities to facilitate this at all levels. In the midst of this I came across a new article in DH quarterly that outlined the small but important contribution that digital humanities departments can play in creating spaces within which to generate debate and discussion from the ground up. 

"Over the last couple of years, it has become increasingly clear that the digital humanities is associated with a visionary and forward-looking sentiment, and that the field has come to constitute a site for far-reaching discussions about the future of the field itself as well as the humanities at large. Based on a rich set of materials closely associated with the formation of the digital humanities, this article explores the visions and expectations associated with the digital humanities and how the digital humanities often becomes a laboratory and means for thinking about the state and future of the humanities. It is argued that this forward-looking sentiment comes both from inside and outside the field, and is arguably an important reason for the attraction and importance of the field."
Patrik Svensson, "Envisioning the Digital Humanities", Digital Humanities Quarterly, vol. 6, No. 1, 2012.

While I would never suggest that digital humanities departments should lead change within the sector, the article eloquently articulated the kind of culture that is being nurtured in these departments -  one that I think needs to develop within all faculties and schools. A culture of openness, innovation and dialogue - rather than fear, silence and nostalgia for a long gone status quo.