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Strategic shifts in Australian higher education

05 December, 2022 | by Sue Kokonis, Chief Academic Officer

When I was approached to speak at the Holon IQ Global Impact Summit in Melbourne, the brief was to explore the drivers of change in higher education and the new models, partnerships and approaches that are emerging as we all look to adapt and innovate. This article includes the research and thinking that informed my contribution to the panel discussion with Studiosity founder Jack Goodman and Tim Dodd, Higher Education Editor at The Australian.

Drivers of change

Rather than a single driver of change, higher education is currently being impacted by three global macro trends. Firstly, we have a looming skills shortage. This will put pressure on governments and employers to respond creatively to the challenges of growing and attracting a workforce capable of responding to the challenges of our times. Korn Ferry predict that globally more than 85 million jobs could go unfilled by 2030, with 4.3 million of those roles in technology and communication. If we view that through an Australian lens, the National Skills Commission is already suggesting that we will require an additional 206,000 tech roles by 2026.

Secondly, technology is changing the way we work. A World Economic Forum survey of companies across a range of sectors indicated that the majority of them plan to use more artificial intelligence, big data, digital trade, cybersecurity, internet of things and text, image and voice processing by 2025. If we time travel a graduate from 2022 forward by five years, they are likely to be interacting with colleagues/clients/customers in completely different ways than we can currently imagine, far beyond our contemporary use of big data sets and social media communication channels. Alongside technical knowledge, this is going to require new skillsets. The successful employee of the future will need to be able to handle change, be agile in upskilling, and possess emotional intelligence to negotiate the interface between technology and humans. As a sector focused on education, we have a duty to prepare students for a high-tech future.

Similarly, technology is also changing the way we learn. A recent study by Times Higher Education found that post pandemic, hybrid learning is highly desirable for many students: 76% expect to work in a hybrid manner and 63% believe this should also be the case for their studies. This is largely driven by school leavers who are more likely to want a combination of face-to-face and digital learning. For the most part, mature aged students still value the greater flexibility of fully online. Underpinning the demands for a digitally rich experience, investment in education technologies continues to grow with a threefold increase in Ed Tech unicorns from 2019 – 2021. Many of the challenges of learning practical skills online are being addressed by virtual laboratories, coding rooms and digital spaces that allow real time collaboration on design briefs and projects. Students are able to practice medical procedures, prepare for education placements and build skills to manage difficult conversations via immersive simulations that combine AI tools and actors or responsive branch scenarios that students can interact with.

Catalysts for change

We are currently in an era of changing student expectations that need to be matched by a rising standard of online learning. Quality online education takes resources, skill and preparation. We have a much better understanding of what students want and need in the online context than even a couple of years ago. And while technology is critical, it needs to be the seamless enabler of the main act, in which human interaction and connection still play a large part. We now know that students want a seamless journey, engaging learning and teaching activities within a supported network and community of learners. Our own mapping of the student journey across hundreds of students illustrates that sense of belonging, support for time management and wellbeing are considered equally as important as interactive learning experiences and preparation for subsequent careers.

Beyond the student learning experience, we are seeing sustained disruption in the educational offering itself. Digitally native challengers such as Coursera, Ed Ex and Udemy are going further, with vast marketplaces moving beyond short courses to degrees, finding it easier to disrupt from outside than change established structures. At this stage from an employer’s perspective, while shorter industry-based courses are valued, it is currently only in the IT space that employers are actually preferencing them over degrees. Whether other industries will follow is still up for debate. IT could be pioneering the ‘new normal’ for industry learning or it could be a unique example due to the tech skills shortage and the rapid evolution of those skills (typically becoming outdated every 18 months to two years).

If more options become available and widely accepted as pathways towards careers, students are likely to increasingly weigh up their investment of time, resources and fees. While undergraduate degrees are still sought after, we are already seeing a decline in demand for longer postgraduate qualifications except where required for industry accreditation leading to employment (e.g. Psychology). Short courses backed by industry partnerships that offer compelling employment outcomes are likely to further increase the pressure on traditional higher education offerings.

New models and partnerships

Despite these external challenges, universities are far from complacent. They have long established industry, research and government partnerships and are the birthplace of emerging technology solutions. Further, they are able to foster the important debates about ethics, social impact and political context that are necessary if we are to advance as a humane society capable of tacking technological and climate solutions. However, as we move towards more of a demand-driven knowledge economy, the demands on our institutions are likely to increase with expectations to grow research capability, contribute to policy and offer compelling education opportunities that meet a growing market of increasingly digital students.

Betts and Rosemann argue that we need a new learning economy, drawing inspiration from tech companies that have managed to balance scalability and personalisation, flexibility and community, and innovation and trust. The university of the very near future may require a Chief Content Officer who ensures degree offerings are responsive to knowledge areas that are in short supply, offering innovative, personalised learning experiences that foster connection with other students, industry and researchers, across a range of credentials from bite size upskilling to deep dive qualifications. If we take this further, students of the future could identify their career aspirations and receive personalised recommendations based on their experience to date, that ensure they are connected into a learning ecosystem, underpinned by deep collaborations between university, industry, and education technology providers. With embedded career milestones and opportunities to access high quality work-integrated learning experiences throughout their journey, students of the future will have the skills and knowledge to meet the challenges, and lead the transformation of, the workplace of tomorrow.