By Warren Bebbington

After six months of pandemic restrictions, the mood in Australian university communities has never been so bleak. Aside from job losses, vanishing students and threatened research programs, all are feeling the loss of the vibrant campus life and collegial interaction so integral to the essence of a university.

Faced with unprecedented challenges, the role of leadership in a university has never been more taxing. Most university leaders moved quickly to deal with the immediate threats from the pandemic, but increasingly their minds are occupied with the future.

After famine, a new harvest blooms: in the shadow of COVID-19, university leaders have a pivotal opportunity to rethink their institutions. Can all our universities continue with their multiple aims of research, professional education, job training, economic advice and community engagement, or should each identify and focus more on its most distinctive, most outstanding activity?

One change in recent months was almost instantaneous: the pandemic wrenched on-line learning modes from the fringe of course delivery methods to the core. Many seasoned academics who had avoided digital learning tools were dragged into video conference platforms, with only a rudimentary introduction to the software and technological skills involved, and nil instruction in on-line pedagogical methods. The consequences of having drawn on-line learning into the core will profoundly affect the way forward: it unavoidably leads to strategies leaders will need to consider for the longer term.

The essence of the graduate we all want to produce will not change: inarguably an analytical mind is a fundamental graduate attribute in any field. But its nurturing is not naturally facilitated by on-line learning modes. The bite-sized information and quick-quiz follow-up mode of on-line pedagogy brings a danger of students losing the capacity to listen at length, to absorb a complex argument, or to summarise, dissect and evaluate what they hear as they hear it.

This raises important questions about the best blend of teaching modes for the future: how asynchronous screen segments delivering content for individual learning need to be mixed with synchronous group interactions facilitating analytical argument.

A new balance between physical and online modes will need to be identified across the campus offerings. It has been said lab experiments are impossible on-line, yet many secondary schools in the pandemic used virtual experiment software in science subjects with success. Methods need developing to better manage staff-student interaction, class discussion, group projects, data sharing, and fieldwork. Many universities will consider offering choice in delivery modes to better accommodate the needs of different student cohorts. Some are experimenting with HyFlex (simultaneous F2F and online delivery), others with offering alternatives for full-time on-campus or part-time working off-campus cohorts.

Blended learning also demands a new concept of the student-centred campus experience, expanding the use of academic mentors, student buddy programmes, and IT support. Student support services will need to help students—and their parents—establish boundaries at home between life and study; to monitor and address loneliness and mental health issues. Communication protocols need adjusting for the new normal. Student administrations need to be reviewed through a student’s eyes, to think through a better array of self-designed, modular course structures more attuned to the changed student needs; to arrive at more liberal leave-of-absence and progress rules matched to the current difficulties students face. Universities need to develop new measurements of the success of their student administration: to what extent are we delivering an experience which is worth the fees being charged?

Teaching staff will no longer need to be solely campus-based, but could include some remotely based, chosen for a specialty in which the university is weak and which might be offered through a network of partner institutions. And the fundamentally inefficient calendar for use of campus facilities will be no longer defensible. Universities could adopt genuinely year-round operations, beyond the marginal summer semesters of the recent past—three full semesters, from which students could choose two to enrol in, or accelerate their progress through, all three. Full-time staff should be able to elect whether they teach a full load across two semesters or reduce their load across all three.

A changed F2F/remote balance of delivery will also involve reconceiving the physical university:  abandoning the construction of more new buildings and instead repurposing existing buildings to interactive learning commons, innovation hubs with industry, or student-led learning spaces. And undeniably, all teaching staff will need enhanced development programmes in pedagogical skills, covering instructional design blending F2F and technology, introducing on-line learning practices and current digital tools, and considering the right mix of synchronous and asynchronous modes for each subject. It is also time to promote research in cognitive learning more broadly, gathering empirical data for different methods of instruction, and developing a reflective future teaching practice for the hybrid environment.

The university workforce will also need to be adjusted to the requirements of the post-pandemic world. This need not mean a return to mass casual employment: rather, a growing cohort of academics in future could be discipline specialists sourcing full-time work from several fractional contracts, teaching both F2F and remotely in several geographically-dispersed universities, their teaching arranged to husband substantial time for research in their field. Leaders could minimise relying on casual staff for core academic work and plan instead a menu of salaried positions, fulltime and fractional, building a faculty with the bandwidth to care year-round for students and conduct sustained research. The abandoning of unneeded capital programs should help provide the resources to make this possible.

 Despite the unprecedented disruption it brought, the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic signals a once-in-a-generation opportunity for a strategic transformation in universities. With bold thought and a clear vision, there is every reason for optimism about Australia’s future as a leading higher education nation.

Former Vice Chancellor of the University of Adelaide, Professor Warren Bebbington is a Professorial Fellow of the L. H. Martin Institute at The University of Melbourne

This is an edited version of Professor Bebbington’s paper for an L H Martin conference, on Thursday, register  here.


to get daily updates on what's happening in the world of Australian Higher Education