Ecology and the future of universities

Lately I have come across several examples of discussion about the future of universities (or rather the lack of a future for universities). There seems to be a couple of main themes. First, if I can do my degree by distance then wouldn’t I be better to get my degree from Cambridge or an American ivy league college than from my more local university who are not in the top 20 of the world?

Second, in our increasingly uber-ish age, perhaps I would be better to contract in an expert to teach me what I need to know rather than joining many others in a large degree, where I might have to deal with courses that I am not so interested in. In these futures, small universities like Lincoln are in trouble and the profession of a university lecturer might be on the endangered list.

Students working in beech forest

We are notoriously bad at predicting the future, although we sometimes get it scarily right. So let me have a bash at seeing where our future might be in 20 years time. I will focus on ecology as that is the area I know the best.

First, a general comment. Universities differ from other teaching institutions because their teaching is research-informed or inspired. This is not a marketing spin. Research is at least as important to your average academic as teaching (time-wise). Virtually all of the lecturers taking courses are active researchers and are usually nationally (and sometimes internationally) recognized experts in their area of expertise. The research provided by universities is a vital service to the com   munity and to the country which is why governments provide us with so much funding.

Lecturers don’t just talk the talk but they walk the walk as well. They know what research is, they use their own research in class, they are well qualified to understand and talk about other people’s research. This all comes as a surprise to undergraduates when I make them aware of the research that we do. Once they understand this they also see the value that is added for their degree. Students move onto a postgraduate degree primarily to train in conducting their own research.

In some future uberversity it is hard to see how experts would be sitting around waiting for someone to contact them to do some teaching.  It would be hard to see that these experts would be active researchers at the same time. Teaching would not be research-informed. It would be difficult to see where postgraduates would fit in.

Jagoba Lammerlaws 10
and tussock highlands

What about big companies? Surely if they need certain skills they could run their own programmes to train students? It’s possible I suppose. However, the same argument has been made in New Zealand for the funding of science and in response we have the lowest rate of science funding from companies in the developed world! Even in the best countries the contribution from governments far exceeds private funding. So if companies are not keen on funding science that they can directly use, what makes us think that they will train staff who can leave with these skills whenever they like? I don’t think that this approach is something we can rely on. In ecology, with the Department of Conservation and our Crown Research Institutes struggling for funding, it is difficult to see who would be able to do their own training.

Another issue with the uberversity future is the problem of not knowing what you don’t know (those pesky unknown unknowns). If you have leaking pipes you call a plumber. If you need to get from the middle of Christchurch to Lincoln you call a taxi. If you want to restore a wetland, well what should you do? You might need to monitor the diversity, do research on seed recruitment, control pest species and a hundred other things. Things that you might learn about in a BSc in ecology degree. Science is complex and open-ended, one question leads to another. It requires commitment and is not something easily taught in a piecemeal way. Especially if you don’t know what you need.

Lewis Pass tops quadrat3
and alpine environment

What about online degrees? As the era of MOOCs (massively open online courses) gets into full swing will this be the end for small, local universities? As an ecologists I think not. Or maybe I hope not. Ecology, even at its most theoretical, is a hands-on science. Field work and field trips are seen as an essential part of learning and teaching. Despite a lot of pressure, we have kept our field trips at Lincoln. In fact we have added in two field courses (one at second year and one at third) because we feel that this is the best way of training our ecologists.

and the rocky shore.

As part of these field experiences the students get to be in the habitats that we talk about. They get to see the plants and animals. They actually do research, either adding to existing projects or, by third year, conducting their very own study. They understand what it is like to work collaboratively in groups. Most importantly, they appreciate logistics (what happens when it rains, the van gets stuck, the equipment breaks, the sandflies and mosquitos are biting, the food needs to be stored, specimens have to be preserved, data is recorded). Ultimately, the students get to feel and share our passion for working on the native biota.

We are lucky that within two hours we can have students working in rockpools or alpine tarns, temperate rainforest and dryland tussocks. The students complete their degrees as ecologists, not as students who have learned some ecology. The hands on, practical experience is why I think that online courses will not replace regional universities just yet.

I guess we’ll have to see.

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