University of Canberra.

University of Canberra. Photo: Louie Douvis

This week Universities Australia released a major policy document - An Agenda for Australian Higher Education 2013-16 - making the case for public investment in Australian universities. The release was timed to coincide with its national conference in Canberra, which was probably the largest higher education event to take place in this city.

All Canberrans have an interest in the national university agenda, and also in the future of the territory's institutions, particularly the University of Canberra, the only university incorporated under ACT legislation. The release this week of UC's plan for the next five years is an occasion to take stock of where we are heading, and higher education more generally.

Some fundamental changes are under way; domestically and internationally. In Australia I believe we have seen a plateau, if not peak, in government funding. I would be surprised if we ever see a higher level of public funding of student places in real terms, but not at all surprised if we see a lower level. Universities need to be self-reliant and resourceful, define clearly what they are offering and post surpluses to re-invest in capital and strategic changes. They may also need to share administrative platforms between themselves or with third parties so as to free up more resources for education and research.

Globally, online learning is now taking off in extraordinary ways. In addition to the new Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS), which rekindle the old idea of self-education in non-profit forms, we are seeing the delivery of standard courses increasingly through video-streaming and new technologies which are arguably better than any traditional lecture. With luck, a dull era of passive lecture attendance is passing and giving way to more active learning through technology. The trick will be to re-awaken small-group encounters that force students to articulate and defend their ideas.

UC plans to break into the ranks of world class universities by 2018, ready for a future where the world at large may be a virtual classroom, laboratory, studio or office. Our new strategic plan called Breakthrough will position us as one of the country's most innovative tertiary institutions by 2018: world-ranked, with regional, national and international reach.

For an institution that has only been a university for 23 years, we are performing strongly. On the Good Teaching scale in the national graduate questionnaire, we have the 7th highest score in the country. For publications per academic we have moved up to 19th, putting us at the median of the sector. Student numbers have grown 50 per cent in four years (2008-2012). Our profile nationally and internationally is rising. And after years of reform and hard work, we ran a true operating surplus last year.

But these are challenging times and we now operate in an almost pure market, competing for all students and funded only for those we attract and retain. It is essential, therefore, that we build our brand, offer a great student experience and reach sufficient scale.

A major objective of the next five years is to increase our student numbers by 50 per cent, which would take us to more than 20,000 enrolments. We cannot do this if we rely solely on the ageing configuration of our local population and those who would be willing to come to Canberra to study. We need to offer our programs in other parts of Australia, as we have done for many years in cities in Asia, and enable students anywhere to enrol with us online and in flexible study modes.

Some of this growth will be achieved by alliances with tertiary institutions around the country who aspire to higher education and to become what in some other parts of the world are regarded as polytechnics. Starting with the Holmesglen Institute of Technology in Melbourne and adding partners in other capital cities, we will offer flexible programs that meet local needs and bring together the best of vocational and higher education traditions. By 2018, the University of Canberra will be a national brand.

Our expansion plans are driven by values as well as economics. We have recommitted to three in particular: to provide high quality transformative education to everyone suitably qualified, whatever their stage of life and irrespective of their origins; to conduct high quality research which makes an early and important difference to the world around us; and to contribute to the building of just, prosperous and sustainable communities. In brief, UC should aim to make the world a better place by changing people's lives through education and through problem-solving research.

By 2018 our campus in Bruce will be a bustling place, with great facilities, more student residences, a hospital, a health clinic, a sports hub and businesses and agencies that wish to collaborate with us. By 2018, the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Canberra College of Advanced Education, we will be ranked among the world's top young universities.

Canberra needs two strong but different universities to secure its future as an education city, less reliant on the federal public service and land release for its sustainability. Education is the ultimate renewable energy in my view, and UC's plan, Breakthrough, will help us generate more of it.

Professor Parker is vice-chancellor of the University of Canberra.