Why Australian universities need to innovate, invest and transform to remain globally competitive


By Tony Maguire, Regional Director, Australia & New Zealand at D2L

In 2019, there were three-quarters of a million international students studying in Australia. Since then, that number has fallen by almost 37%, according to the Australian Department of Education. China was and still is Australia’s largest source market for international students, followed by India and Nepal. Encouragingly, after a challenging three years, early indications reveal that 2023 could be a record year for international university students coming to Australia to study.

The Australian government and higher education sector needs to be more proactive if they want to remain competitive in international education. It connects Australia with the world, delivers better education outcomes for our domestic students, and contributes to the national economy. In 2019, international education earned $40.3 billion and supported around 250,000 Australian jobs.

In the coming years, we need to do things differently as we rebuild to make the higher education sector more sustainable, create new growth opportunities and enhance the experiences of domestic and international students. As international student numbers start to increase again, we also need to have a greater diversity of students coming into Australia.

The Australian Strategy for International Education 2021–2030 sets a new direction for international education for the next ten years. The Strategy will be backed by more than $37 million in targeted support measures, including regulatory fee relief and an Innovation Development Fund for English language providers.

Upskilling or reskilling to establish skills alignment

Increasing the diversity of courses in which international students can enrol introduces opportunities for a more substantial alignment between international education and Australian skills needs.

The National Skills Commission (NSC) has identified skills needs in emerging fields that will drive Australia’s growth in the future. Its data is promising. Skills that are new and growing in the economy—such as renewable energy, cyber security and infection control—are already being taught through Australia’s Vocational Education and Training (VET) system. In addition, over half of the occupations listed in shortage on the NSC’s Skills Priority List have a pathway through the VET system.

Remaining competitive

How will universities remain competitive internationally in this metamorphic age that’s fundamentally changing how we live, work and learn? What will the nature and role of a university be?

We must ask what will make a university successful in this new world. What will Australia’s students and employers demand of our universities in the future? And what should universities consider today to be ready to deliver truly transformative outcomes?

Disrupting university business models

There is a dichotomy between competing needs. On the one hand, universities need to find ways to stabilise and optimise their core business. On the other, they need to embrace change, innovation and opportunity to enable future growth. University leaders need to be ready to reposition their institutions by nurturing deeper collaboration with industry and co-creating new business models and learning experiences.

Shifting from faculty-focused to learner-centric 

Australia is encouraging social institutions in the public and private sectors to focus on those they serve. The implications of this shift for universities are significant because learners are becoming more demanding consumers of educational services. Universities must evolve their paradigm—from student to learner, from teaching to designing and managing learning experiences, and from degree based to continuous learning.

Reimagining the physical campus for a virtual world 

Technology is impacting the educational landscape as learning moves to a hybrid state. For many, however, the novelty of a 60-second journey to their desk at home for an online lecture may have worn off somewhat as they miss the on-campus experience with the combined energy of students and staff. Unfortunately, many international students still cannot be on campus due to local lockdowns and limited access to affordable flights. That is why access to quality online learning is essential for them.

Universities need to re-think the meaning of “campus” in a future where digital and physical infrastructure intersects and space, place, and time are more fluid. What is the contribution and value of “campus” in the students’ life-long learning journey?

Shifting the role of education institutions

Universities are evolving from their traditional roles as teaching and research centres to play a big part in Australia’s future prosperity. As economic growth hubs and innovation incubators, universities are forging more intimate ties to their local communities. In the future, universities will need to reimagine their physical footprints and facilities, with opportunities to use them in new ways to help address broader social and societal needs.

The takeout 

Commentary around the recent Universities Australia conference foreshadows profound changes in the education sector. Policymakers and university leaders agree that a reset is needed to work together better to meet immediate and longer-term challenges and adjust the settings to help Australian universities innovate, invest and transform.

Our universities can then be recognised as one of Australia’s critical economic assets, with the Australian Government taking a crucial role in ensuring they are globally competitive.

Tony Maguire is Regional Director, Australia & New Zealand at D2L


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