Opinion piece by Professor John Germov, Acting Vice-Chancellor of Charles Sturt University.
According to Albert Einstein, ‘in the middle of every difficulty lies opportunity’. For the higher education sector, the difficulties of a tumultuous 2020 have been well documented. However, the opportunities that have arisen as a result have received less scrutiny. Yet there are indeed opportunities, and in the coming 12 months Australian universities will steer towards some largely unexplored avenues of collaboration and diversification to shore up their sustainability.
With prospects for the full return of international students to pre-COVID levels likely to take years, educational and research partnerships with vocational and private education providers, industry, all tiers of government and even ‘rival’ universities will be at a premium.
One interesting model will be universities collaborating with vocational providers to offer students vocational-level certificates, such as Certificate III and IV. This goes hand in hand with a recognised need within the sector for a more holistic view of higher education; a view that values workplace learning as highly as employers do. This should lead to apprenticeship-style degrees (in particular industries) where students receive on-the-job training and are essentially employed while studying. A work-study balance of this nature plays to the strengths and experience of vocational providers.
This trend encroaches on an area occupied by smaller private education providers, which have enjoyed dominance of the professional development market. Australian universities have the reputations required to move into this space, and if they can develop quality products and be agile in terms of developing B2B partnerships, there will be opportunities to cater to the upskilling market by provding research-informed ‘stackable’ credentials that count towards a formal university qualification. These are big ‘ifs’, and it will likely only be a small number of universities – those with strong industry connections and the ability to provide quality online delivery and assessment – that will be able to do this effectively.
Even collaborations between universities – not unheard of in the past, but traditionally scarce in a hyper-competitive sector – will be pursued. The new ‘multiversity’ at Western Sydney is an example, and there will likely be more universities co-operating in offering higher education experiences, such as short courses, micro-credentials and shared degrees; linked to precinct-based developments that facilitate syngergistic opportunites from co-locating with private industry and public agencies. There will be challenges to overcome in such partnerships, not least the policy levers the federal government will have to pull, but the ‘multiversity’ concept is an interesting development that will likely become more common.
Collaboration with government, not-for-profits and the private sector will be a focus for higher education leaders who will seek to carve out niches for their institutions to work with each of these stakeholders. A crucial part of that is ensuring research is valuable and distinct by focusing on industry and community, as well as the practical applications and knowledge transfer in those domains.
Universities will focus on scaling-up research that is reflective of their particular strengths. At Charles Sturt, for example, our regional location lends itself to applied research in agriculture and sustainable land and water management. We recently signed a new strategic partnership with the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, which will bring mutual benefits to both organisations, improving research and workforce capability by sharing knowledge and skills. Partnerships of this nature boost research performance significantly in a relatively short period of time compared to more traditional approaches.
Despite their unique origins, Australian universities have over time tended to gravitate to the mean, as former University of Melbourne vice-chancellor Glyn Davis has cogently argued. While in the detail you can see differences, essentially the nation’s universities are all doing similar things: similar research and offering similar degrees that are delivered in similar sorts of ways. Yet what we will start to see in 2021 is greater differentiation between institutions. The focus for many universities – including Charles Sturt – will be how to move away from the mean to achieve greater distinctiveness in teaching and research.
Australian universities have experienced unprecedented challenges in 2020, but this presents an opening for the sector to review strategies and consider different opportunities, and collaborate in new and innovative ways.
This article was originally published in The Australian on Monday 25 January.