To be successful at this national scale, universities will need to create sufficiently differentiated profiles. Universities today make that effort when attracting international students, but because the assumption has been that their local student intake can always be relied on, they have fallen back on broad-based, and largely undifferentiated offerings.
But it would be a mistake for universities to assume that the learning and employment needs of their students on the other side of the COVID pandemic will look the same as they did going in. Universities need to take this moment to make a call about what learning, capabilities and qualities they believe will be valued in which industries and why.
The head of the federal government’s COVID Commission, Nev Power, is calling for Australian manufacturing to move from old-fashioned methods to become “modern, efficient, high-tech and focused on the things we need”. RBA Governor Philip Lowe this week also highlighted the need for students and workforces to be trained so they have the skills for the modern economy.
Universities need to make their shifts to dovetail with ideas and visions such as this.
In a post-pandemic world, universities that thrive will have decided what they want to be known for, and have branded themselves accordingly. Forward thinking universities, such as the University of Adelaide, have already gone some way to doing this by focussing their education efforts on the learning and insights valued by strong South Australian industries.
Specialising helps universities in three key ways.
One, if a university decides it wants, for instance, the best astrophysicists, the best agronomists, the best mechanical engineers, the best social scientists, or whatever it might be it provides a strong focus for the recruitment of both academics, advisors and students, who themselves are passionate about these areas. In effect, the university consciously and by design seeks to create communities of shared intellectual curiosity and pursuit.
Second, it helps the university form key linkages with the industries, businesses and their leaders and luminaries, in the areas that they decide to devote themselves to. As we noted in our 2019 University of the Future report, Australian universities rank last in the OECD for their collaboration with businesses on innovation. Now is the moment that Australian universities should be energetically engaging with industry to co-create course content, collaborate on research and offer work-integrated learning.
Third, a specialised, national approach relies on universities proving they can offer teaching and learning experiences that are demonstrably better than what students would experience from other domestic players. Crucially, universities must accept that the digital learning method is not just about taking lecture content and putting it online.
Universities need to rapidly integrate the best of adaptive, personalised, digitised teaching and learning with continuous feedback plus support for teachers and educators at the same time.
Harnessed properly, such an approach represents a clear opportunity for attracting to their institution not just students who want to stay living in their community, but international students as well, thereby negating the negative impact border and travel restrictions would otherwise have.
We wrote in 2019 that universities need to reconsider the role of the campus in a future where digital learning models dominate and space, place and time are less important. We also thought the coming paradigm shift would be profound.
Nowhere did we imagine that the old ways would be upended so quickly and comprehensively, and that the ability to build, work and maintain virtual relationships happen virtually overnight. But those possibilities are now reality.
The most immediate and tactical opportunity for university leaders is to recognise that next year’s learners will be unlike the learners they’ve ever had before. Cleverly designed and delivered remote teaching and learning has a huge role to play in improving educational equity and outcomes. Universities also have an important market opportunity to differentiate themselves in a way they've never been able to before.
We now have a clear path for how that can be delivered.
This article originally appeared in The Australian online, Friday 24 April 2020.