While the world has changed around higher education in 2022, key fundamentals within the sector stay the same.
Sure, there are more resources going into government relations right now than there were in the past, there is a teeny bit of additional diversity in the way universities are approaching international, and there is a wealth of virtualised curriculum that didn’t exist pre-2020.
But as the tablecloths and balloons are dusted off for campus-based open days, and the PowerPoints are dredged up from servers in preparation for school visits that will stultify school children across the nation, and the cobwebs are dusted from lecture theatre projectors in the hope that bright young minds will leap back to campus, it feels like the grand plans for reform may have been lost down the back of the couch at the latest post-lockdown party.
Instead of the grand plan, then, it is at least opportune to consider some more modest adjustments to post-lockdown, post-Coalition, post-dominant China market world.
Firstly, what are you doing with your campus? We love campuses. They can be vibrant, crucibles of friendships, deep learning and crazed drinking games. They are also expensive, depressing when empty and a catalyst for endless verbal wargames over staff parking issues. Given that a large proportion of office workers are still enthusiastically embracing working from home, leaving many to conclude that workplaces have changed forever, what does that mean for face-to-face learning?
Are you going to pull out the carrot or the stick to get students feigning excitement about a full-time return to campus? If our alumni are enjoying greater flexibility in the way they attend and engage in work, are we ready to also deliver increased flexibility and choice around the way we study?
Secondly, there are a few green shoots of innovation in open days (but only a few). Open Days, the darling of every university staff member who wants to spend only one day of their life each year talking to the community, are back with a vengeance, although at a number of universities in slightly altered form. There are four evident approaches.
Some universities have jumped straight back to the on-campus day, promising an experience like it was 2019 (thousands more visitors than you will ever accept for enrolments, a container load of branded pens and in amongst the often helpful staff, a couple of old blokes who really shouldn’t be allowed out to talk to the public).
A second group has invested heavily in on-line open day platforms and content, and are continuing to offer on-line-only open day experiences.
A third group is offering a mix of on-line and on campus experiences – blending together the lockdown and pre-lockdown formats, offering a much broader reach and range of experiences.
The final group appears smaller, but offer much interest because they are choosing to do things differently. There is talk of open nights, not just open days, and better-tailored events which allow students to better understand and interrogate their options. For example, the University of Wollongong is offering a fleet of Discovery Days to year 12 students over the second week in August, something that others like Deakin U and Uni Newcastle have offered to younger students for some time, hoping that the taste-then-tell paradigm fills their respective marketing funnels.
It will be interesting to see if blending experiential opportunities more authentically with information exchange during revamped open events delivers improved matching of student and course and has any impact on first year attrition rates – as it should.
There is ample opportunity to significantly improve not just enrolment outcomes, but also reduced attrition and increased satisfaction ratings if universities start to think more critically about effective domestic recruitment processes.
The first step is to set aside the presumption that all students are equal and the happiness and success of a student cohort will best be determined by transactions matching ATAR with cutoff scores. This equation has failed for decades but still sits at the heart of many institution’s enrolment strategies.
Thirdly, articulation of research strategy needs a comprehensive re-think. Research strategies are often under-resourced in terms of planning and strategy development and certainly in terms of communication – and in light of the change in Federal Government and wobbly economic conditions, they need a comprehensive re-think. Strategies are often weak, but setting those aside for a moment, communication often founders. This is a big deal, but is typically poorly resourced, with all the marketing and comms focus expended on brand and student recruitment. Why does this matter?
Firstly, look at the track record of the sector in advocating for legislative support or reform. Yes it’s a wince-fest at best. Secondly, why do you exist? Oh I know you have a nice mission statement and are there for the betterment of mankind, but drop in for a cuppa in the residential areas surrounding your campus and ask Ethel or Ern or Li if they know why your employer exists. None of those fine words will come up over Earl Grey and biscuits, sadly. Even more telling, ask your staff how their work is changing lives.
Research strategy is going to be really important to the Albanese Government. It should not be about aggregating disciplines of strength to drive funding and publication growth. There are a couple of simple questions it should arise from – what do the communities you serve need, and what will your research do. Anyone who thinks this excludes pure research and incremental growth in knowledge fails to grasp my point above – which is that articulation of research strategy needs a comprehensive re-think.
There could be a grand plans for reform gestating in sandstone towers across the country right now, but until they reveal themselves, some fresh thinking on micro-reforms would be pretty exciting.
Casual staff, who endured little recognition or respect and no job certainty pre-pandemic are the hidden story. Yes of course we have heard may calls to turn casual roles into secure employment – and indeed, thousands were – but tens of thousands of others lost their jobs, income and voice. As the sector seeks to grow, will the people who haven’t been able to afford to eat for two years – reliant on savings, other income or spouses – have the energy and good grace to return?