In 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic ushered in a new world of economic uncertainty, geopolitical volatility, exponential digitisation and, in all likelihood, ongoing physical distancing. Like many other sectors, the higher education sector has been plunged into a ‘new normal’.
Rather than seeing it as a temporary disruption before a return to business as usual, it is a timely opportunity to look at how the sector can be made fitter for purpose so that it continues to be an engine of innovation, creativity and productivity.
In the 20 years before COVID-19, higher education institutions in Australia had grown heavily reliant on international sources of income, with campuses designed for large-scale in-person engagement. At the same time, increasing digitisation has spawned numerous massive open online courses (MOOCs) offered by multinational corporations at low to no cost. A typical MOOC tends to be broad in the topics covered. Higher education institutions are left with little choice: compete directly on breadth and price or distinguish value by focusing on a narrower range of courses and research that explore specialisms in depth.
COVID-19 has only served to accelerate these trends. Universities and educational institutions have had to rapidly pivot to delivering most – if not all – of their services online. They have had to review their pedagogical model and reassess their infrastructure requirements.
The broader question for the sector is, how will it maintain relevance locally and globally in the new normal? In 2020 many institutions undertook cost cutting with the aim of becoming more ‘fit for purpose’.
To reposition and grow, PwC thinks that institutions now need to clarify what they want to stand for and plot their path ahead so that they become ‘fit for a purpose’ that will energise their faculty, students and communities and help them make important trade off choices on where to channel their resources.
Tomorrow’s successful educational institutions will have distinctive brands that reflect their purpose and focus on excellence in select areas.
As an institution, you will need to be as clear about what you don’t represent as you are about what you stand for.
What is your promise to students, staff and society?
In what areas of research can you exert disproportionate impact, at national and international levels?
What learning and employment outcomes fit with your purpose? What types of students, courses and delivery modes will most effectively meet these goals?
What strengths, experiences and qualities can you offer that have a disproportionate impact on attracting and retaining students and research talent?
What unique values, qualities or contributions do you want to see your institution providing to your community and the nation?
COVID-19 brought sudden disruptions to student income and technology systems, but it also accelerated long term trends in student and society expectations and has left institutions with offerings, assets and capabilities that are no longer fit for purpose. To become fit for their chosen purpose, institutions are recognising they will need to reshape their organisation.
With constrained resources, should institutions spread them more thinly across the same portfolio of teaching and research activities or rationalise the portfolio and focus resources on fewer but more tightly defined priority activities?
As an institution, your physical size and shape are about the reach of your faculties, networks, physical presence, as well as the number of people in your community of students and staff.
Institutions must invest in an adaptable digital spine that connects people, data, applications and physical assets through seamless experiences and enables them to evolve at the pace they need.
Irrespective of an institution’s purpose, size and shape we think there are six enablers of success that every institution will need in the new normal.
Financial flexibility and sustainability will enable your institution to not only survive but also thrive in a more volatile and unpredictable world.
To attract talent, funding and partners, institutions should make it their business to know their students’ needs, priorities and challenges and be obsessive about how these are measured and acted upon.
Mutually beneficial and enduring partnerships with industry and government are necessary to ensure a university’s performance and outputs continue to have industry relevance and regulatory and government support.
A workforce with the right skills, agility, tools and ways of working will be essential to thriving in the new normal.
Successful higher education institutions will be able to support their students’ life and career objectives by optimising support and course offerings, and gently guiding and reinforcing positive behaviours (i.e. ‘nudging’).
Community trust is built by demonstrating you can be a custodian of public funds, have strong cybersecurity and will use data ethically.