The PM says unis need to adapt. Claire Field show how they are


But the sector needs to know the size of the challenge and that means clarity on research funding

 A critical higher education conversation took place this week, outside the sector. The Prime Minister gave an interview to the Herald Sun where he traversed a number of issues, including the return of international students to Australia.

The Prime Minister commented that COVID had “highlighted a vulnerability” in university business models and he expected universities to adapt like any other business. He went on to say “I think it’s always time for universities to consider their economic model … I would be surprised if it had taken them this long to do that thinking.”

The scale of the challenge facing the higher education sector is enormous and it comes with a key element of the government’s higher education reforms yet to be settled, i.e. how future research funding will be allocated once the Research Sustainability Working Group finalise their advice to government.

Nonetheless institutions are preparing for major changes to their business models.

An increase in academic public-private partnerships (online programme management, boot camps and international education pathways) will be one way in which universities will look to make changes. HolonIQ has identified more than 300 such partnerships were created globally in 2020. And universities are also seeking out more partnerships with employers and industry (encouraged by, but not limited to, the new National Priorities and Industry Linkage Fund).

Digital technology will be both a key transformation tool and a significant challenge. A recent survey of 312 higher education leaders in 30 countries identified process and people (and then technology) as the biggest gaps in universities’ digital capability. Australian vice-chancellors face the same gaps and need to fill them in a highly uncertain financial environment.

Clarity on the scale and allocation of future research funding (i.e. who gets what?) will assist universities in determining where and how they need to change. And then the challenge of designing and implementing the change begins.

Claire Field is an advisor to the tertiary education sector. She is also the Australian contributor to HolonIQ’s global market intelligence platform