The previous articles in our Benchmarking Change series considered how businesses can use technology to cope with the changes technology has unleashed. In the last in the series, we’re changing tack a little to consider how one industry is coping with change.
That industry is higher education, a field that in a generation has shifted from being publicly-funded to a new environment in which winning fee-paying students is critical for operations. Overseas students have therefore become a vital source of revenue for Australian universities. Those students shop in a global marketplace of higher education providers, raising the bar for universities in terms of the work they must do to attract students.
The very product universities offer, undergraduate and postgraduate courses, is also changing, fast.
“The product that the sector offers has been in place for a thousand years,” says Dr Julian Edwards, a KPMG Partner who consults to the sector. “Its structure hasn't really changed much. It's three years, has a certain sequence to it.
“The delivery of that has been largely pretty standard. In many cases, a lecturer lectures in a room physically located on-campus, and the student expectation is a job at the end of their degree.”
And that’s a challenge for a couple of reasons. One, as we canvassed in our investigation of HR and technology, is that many young people no longer aspire to get a nine-to-five job and want to blend work, play and community contributions. Another is that younger people are accustomed to on-demand learning environments, rather than having to be constrained to a particular time and place.
“People who go into universities are almost by definition digital natives,” says KPMG’s Edwards. “So they enter an institution which potentially is not geared up to meet their expectations.”
Higher education students are also aware that for their University subjects comparable, high-quality, educational content can be located online.
“They’ll say “I think I’ll learn better in this different, online environment than I can in a live on-campus lecture”” Edwards explains.
They’re also aware that University is expensive and that their student debts will be burdensome, making institutions with excellent industry connection and job placement options more valuable.
Another challenge to the sector comes from the fact that some of the skills employers need are changing.
At the recent Gartner IT Symposium, Professor Richard Miles, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Enterprise and Engagement at The University of Sydney, said “We can train students for a job that is needed absolutely now, but we know the life of skills is diminishing all the time.”
“If tech companies can’t keep up with tech, do you think that universities can keep up with that? Is it our job?”
Professor Miles said that The University of Sydney has decided its job is now to ensure its graduates emerge as resilient, good problem-solvers and team players.
“A disastrous thing for students is the first time they fail when they go into the workforce,” he told the Symposium. One reason they fail at that point is that University has traditionally required solitary work, but the real world means working in cross-disciplinary teams.
Which is why the University now offers a third-year unit that assembles a team of five students, all studying different degrees, and takes them out of the classroom to work on a project together. The problems they address are set after consultation with industry, to ensure that graduates have useful skills and to show students that their fees will equip them for work and help them to win a job.
This approach meets a need that KPMG’s Dr Edwards has identified, namely that of students requesting new ways of learning, and new types of credentials.
“Students are looking for customisable programs, personalisation, nano-degrees and micro-credentials, for example. Stacking credentials, both vertically and horizontally, allows students to present a unique set of qualifications to potential employers, that meet the skills requirements demanded by industry”.
Students demanding new types of credentialing is something universities are starting to to contemplate, yet are they moving fast enough and creating learning outcomes really required by industry? No wonder the 2017 book Australian universities at a Crossroads (PDF) is full of University officials predicting massive change.
One of the book’s interviewees, a senior research administrator, scientist and government official yielded the following observation:
“I don't think anyone in universities quite understands the tsunami that is going to hit with our new students. The way the people that are now 15 years old access data is through smart technologies … Very few people in universities quite understand the different psychology of the people that are going to hit universities in five years’ time … The next generation will be completely different in the way they are accessing information, and they will be much better at harvesting and synthesising an output from that harvesting than they are at thinking through problems.”
In another interview recorded in the book, a Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor from a major Australian University said “Obviously, technology and digitisation have had a huge impact on higher education and that is shaping society but it is also shaping education in society and it is shaping the way in which higher education is not only delivered but it is shaping how higher education is used, perceived and understood.”
And this is also changing the relationship between the University and students. The relationship now is not just a relationship that lasts for the period of a degree, but one of lifelong learning. New models, such as micro-credentials, allows universities to set themselves up as a learning partner for students; the source of ongoing education.In turn means universities are developing new marketing competencies so they can engage with students throughout their careers.
As KPMG’s Dr Edwards explains, “A lot of the ways in which we engage with universities is to think about higher education digital transformation; including digital marketing, CRM and practices that will improve the entire student experience throughout the entire lifecycle .”
But those efforts may not market a University itself. Edwards sees universities building learning environments that will attract globalised students looking for the best experiences. If universities get this right, they will be also able to export education offshore through online learning environments. Universities therefore need to ensure a great student experience, adaptable credentialing, a focus on lifelong learning and a global outlook.
If they can pull off that transformation, he thinks they’ll learn to survive the myriad of changes the combination of technology and globalisation have created.