Future challenges for universities

University of the future

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University of the future 2012

Key findings:

  • Drivers of change
  • Preparing for the future

Regardless of their chosen model, public universities will need to address the following challenges:

“It’s going to be a tough decade”
- University Vice-Chancellor

Quality and academic excellence

Regardless of the target segment – metropolitan students, regional students or international students – and the pressure on institutional finances, universities will need to find ways to maintain academic excellence and deliver quality teaching and research. Some in the sector worry that quality will suffer in a competitive market. This may happen at the margins but, over time, those that can’t maintain quality will lose market share and relevance.

Academic talent and workforce structure

The academic workforce in Australia is aging, significantly more so than the rest of the workforce. A quarter of Australia’s academic workforce is aged 55 and over, compared to 15% for the rest of the workforce in Australia. For the 45 and over age group, the percentage is 54% for the academic workforce compared to 38% for the rest of population. Significant proportions of this workforce will retire in the coming decade.

Universities will need to attract new talent to replace this workforce, and at the same time build a new workforce structure that can support new business models, deliver increased productivity, and accommodate non-traditional operating models; for example, tri-semesters and northern hemisphere timetabling.

Commercial skills

As higher education markets become increasingly competitive and consumer-driven, public universities will need to deepen their commercial skills and capability – both in the administrative and academic workforce. This will be needed, not just to secure market share in undergraduate and postgraduate markets, but also to enable universities to cut the right deals with private providers and new entrants.

Change management and speed to market

New university models will require significant change. Universities have traditionally been resistant to change and new business models, with academics typically citing the need for academic independence and the purity of the mission. University leaders will need to find ways to stay true to the mission, maintain academic integrity and independence, while at the same time changing their business and operating models.

A critical component of this change will be the need for speed to market. As the market becomes increasingly competitive domestically and internationally, universities will need to be first to market with new teaching and research programs and innovative student experiences.

Relationship with government

Australian governments, regardless of political persuasion, will be increasingly fiscally constrained, at least in the next 3-5 years, and probably beyond.

Government funding as a share of university revenue will likely decline. Universities will need to search for ways to move beyond the ‘fight for funds’ relationship with government. For example, in a future, broader relationship, universities might participate in joint initiatives that build the base for a globally competitive knowledge economy.

“The traditional university model is the analogue of the print newspaper… 15 years max, you’ve got the transformation”
- University Vice-Chancellor

Universities will also need to find ways to become increasingly influential from an electoral point of view. “There are no votes in higher education,” was a common lament in our discussions with university leaders. A number of leaders in the sector are endeavouring to shift community and government mindsets on this point; this needs to continue apace.

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