Get in touch
Case Studies

Higher education trends: implications for university leaders

22 September, 2021 | by Ivar Berget, Jun Wei Tong

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact societies and economies the world over, key trends are emerging in higher education, presenting both opportunity and risk.

With our active engagement across local and international higher education leadership and our relationship with SEEK, OES is uniquely positioned to identify the trends emerging in our sector.

Our teams have identified five key trends impacting the higher education sector in 2021. Importantly, we have also identified the key implications for universities wanting to respond to shifts in the landscape.

Trend 1: COVID-19 will drive even stronger growth in demand for online degrees

The online degree segment has been growing strongly in key markets including Australia, the US and UK, particularly at postgraduate level. Since 2018, the number of Australian postgraduate (coursework) students commencing online has exceeded the number commencing on campus.1

Today, as a result of COVID-19, people are doing more online, more often. As a result, acceptance of online education has increased even further and – we believe – will continue to grow.

We predict that growth will come from two student cohorts. The first of these is mature age students who need the flexibility that online learning provides as they juggle study with multiple work and life commitments. While many in this segment already study fully online, we are confident the proportion will increase as a result of COVID-19 normalising online activities.

Additionally, we believe there will be some growth from the traditional school leaver cohort. We know that this cohort tends to prefer face-to-face study on-campus, as they seek the numerous non-academic experiences that campus life provides. However, we predict that this cohort will increasingly look for blended options that provide them with the flexibility to pursue other goals alongside study (e.g. work and volunteering opportunities).

One potential blended model involves students being able to seamlessly switch between modes (either across units or semesters), so they can choose their study mode based on the commitments they have at that point in time. If universities were to offer this kind of blended experience or delivery model, more students from this segment would potentially choose to study online, at least for parts of their degree.

Implication: To remain relevant, attractive and competitive, universities need to develop and deliver strong online and blended courses.

Trend 2: Advancements in ed tech are rapidly transforming learning

The use of VR, AI, advanced analytics and digital learning platforms are transforming higher education. As these and other ed tech innovations accelerate, universities can provide students with more learning experiences that were previously not possible in traditional classroom settings.

One example of this is Labster, which uses VR to develop fully interactive advanced lab simulations, enabling students to virtually experiment with expensive lab equipment typically only found at select universities. Labster also leverages VR to bring new concepts to life for students in ways previously not possible, for example by immersing a student within the human body at a molecular level, to observe how DNA is replicated.

New digital learning platforms such as Engageli and Active Learning Forum (by Minerva) enable virtual classroom experiences that potentially surpass the traditional classroom experience. These platforms provide the digital space, tools and analytics for effective collaborative learning. Breakout rooms enable students to discuss and solve problems on shared documents or a digital whiteboard, before students are brought together for each group to seamlessly present their outputs to peers. Advanced polling and voting functionality (e.g. real-time continuous voting) enable educators to assess mastery of a topic, or to take the student pulse on topics. Educators also have easy access to analytics such as a real-time view of learner participation, so that they can ensure all students actively contribute.

Locally, individual academics are experimenting to improve personalised learning. Dr David Kellerman, Senior Lecturer in the School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering at UNSW uses AI and analytics to create personalised study plans for students. He uses past student data to train the AI to understand what students need to know to excel in exams, and based on this, uses AI to create personal study plans for every student

Implication: To remain relevant and competitive, universities need to adopt ed tech solutions that are sufficiently mature, to transform the education experience.

Trend 3: The evolving nature of work is changing the type and timing of the skills students need

Continued advancements in AI and robotics mean that technology will likely replace a large portion of workers, create entirely new jobs and impact on how the majority of jobs are performed. In Australia for example, McKinsey estimates that 25-46% of current work activities could be automated by 2030, affecting 3.5-6.5 million FTE positions, with 1.8–5 million workers needing to change professions.2 This is already influencing the amount of study and key skills needed by workers throughout their careers.

In particular, more workers are needing to continuously upskill throughout their careers – representing a departure from the conventional model of a worker acquiring the majority of key skills prior to starting a career. Deloitte for example anticipates that individuals may have to update their skills six times throughout a 30-year career.3 We predict that this trend will have a positive impact on demand for online degrees, as many of these workers will need formal qualifications to upskill and will be in the mature age segment (which we predict will increasingly gravitate towards online study).

Additionally, the changing nature of work means that students may need a different portfolio of skills and knowledge to be successful in the new environment. Existing university curriculums may prepare students well for the current work environment but could possibly be less effective in preparing students for the future of work (especially given the significant changes in terms of jobs that will exist and how jobs are performed).

We are already seeing some institutions reinventing their degree curriculums and pedagogies in response to this. For example, Minerva (a non-profit university that runs potentially the most selective degree program in the developed world4) has identified that thinking critically and creatively, communicating effectively and interacting effectively are broadly useful skills that will enable students to successfully adapt to a rapidly changing world, and have embedded units such as “formal analyses” and “complex systems” into their curriculum.5

Implication: Universities can respond to increased demand for more agile, ‘on demand’ learning by designing learning products that deliver key skills and competencies, at speed. University leaders can also review future of work requirements and existing curriculums to ensure degrees are equipping students with the right knowledge and skills.

Trend 4: Students and governments are increasingly focused on return on investment (ROI)

Through our work with university partners in Australia, New Zealand and the UK, we have seen particular student cohorts (e.g. mature age students) becoming increasingly focussed on ROI when deciding whether to study, and when picking a provider and a course. These students are increasingly looking for the education product that provides them with their desired outcome (e.g. specific career objective), at the lowest cost (in terms of money and time required to complete). We believe this focus will only intensify in a relatively weak global economic environment (which encourages scrutiny of costs) and increased competition from new education providers offering entirely new value propositions (e.g. boot camp products that help students quickly change careers at lower cost).

Governments also appear to be increasingly looking at student ROI, in particular by taking a stronger interest in student outcomes. In Australia for example, recent policy reforms emphasise ‘job-readiness’ (e.g. through the Job Ready Graduates package), and performance measures have been put in place that tie a portion of funding to student outcomes.

Universities are actively looking to respond to these market pressures, mainly through traditional solutions such as incorporating more work integrated learning (WIL) activities into degrees. At the same time, we are seeing new and innovative digital WIL models emerging globally.

One inventive example is Forage, a company that helps universities deliver virtual work experience programs that replicate work at top companies (e.g. Citi, BCG, GE, Linklaters) in areas such as investment banking, strategy consulting, data analytics and commercial law. Students develop practical and relevant skills by working through detailed and high-fidelity digital materials prepared by industry. This process also helps them better understand the potential roles they may be keen to pursue, enabling informed career decision making.

Implication: Universities should proactively review and enhance student ROI for degrees and consider innovative solutions to enhance and demonstrate student ROI.

Trend 5: High quality informal qualifications will disrupt segments of the degree market

Many employers of “skilled” jobs in Australia have historically required job applicants to possess a formal qualification (e.g. degree) to be eligible to apply. While we believe this continues to be the case for many “skilled” jobs (in particular jobs that require the worker to be a member of a professional body such as accountants and lawyers), we have observed a growing trend (mainly overseas at this point in time) of high quality informal qualifications being seen as viable substitutes for certain jobs, by some large employers.

The number of high quality informal qualifications – in particular those delivered by top tier universities and global companies – is growing rapidly and proving very attractive to students. Google made headlines in 2020 when it launched a suite of Google certificates, covering IT support, data analytics, project management, UX design and android development. Google has stated that it views these certificates (which only take a few months to complete) as equivalent to a 4-year degree for relevant roles.6 Given the prominence of Google, other employers globally may follow their lead. Should this occur, a portion of students who would have studied a formal qualification in these disciplines may instead opt for a Google Certificate as a more efficient pathway to employment. We note that many of these courses are in areas which are constantly and rapidly evolving. Such industry-developed informal qualifications tend to include and reflect the latest industry developments, making them even more attractive to students and employers.

In another example, Harvard Business School (HBS) Online’s portfolio of ~20 online short courses covers areas such as business essentials, leadership & management, entrepreneurship & innovation, strategy, analytics and finance & accounting. ​These informal qualifications appear to be valued in the employment market, with a recent survey of HBS Online graduates revealing that 25% of their graduates received a promotion, 33% transitioned into a new field, and 50% received increased attention from recruiters.7 We know that many students undertake formal qualifications to obtain career benefits, and it is possible that some of these students may prefer online short courses such as those offered by HBS Online, particularly given the potential to obtain similar career benefits at lower cost.

Implication: Universities should actively consider the disruption risk posed by high quality informal qualifications when launching new courses, and when assessing how to differentiate existing courses.

How to respond

These five trends reveal opportunities and challenges for universities to consider and respond to. In doing so, forward-thinking universities can capture projected demand from students, employers and government.

At OES, we work with university leaders every day to understand their challenges, identify opportunities, design solutions and deliver student learning and experience outcomes that support sustainable growth.

Start the conversation with us today.


  1. Department of Education, Skills and Employment, 2021. uCube – Higher Education Statistics. [Online]
    Available at:
    [Accessed 7 September 2021].
  2. Taylor, C. et al., 2019. Australia’s automation opportunity: Reigniting productivity and inclusive income growth, s.l.: McKinsey & Company.
  3. Deloitte Insights, 2017. Forces of change : The Future of Work, s.l.: Deloitte.
  4. Clarke, B., 2020. The future of education or just hype? The rise of Minerva, the world’s most selective university. [Online]
    Available at:
    [Accessed 8 September 2021].
  5. For more information, please see Kosslyn, S. M., 2018. Practical Knowledge. In: S. M. Kosslyn, ed. Building the Intentional University. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, pp. 19-43.
  6. Johnson Hass, A., 2020. Google announces 100,000 scholarships for online certificates in data analytics, project management and UX. [Online]
    Available at:
    [Accessed 8 September 2021].
  7. Byrne, J., 2019. Are Online Business Courses Worth It?. [Online]
    Available at:
    [Accessed 7 September 2021].