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Higher education in the UK and Australia: A cross-continental discussion

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Higher education in the UK and Australia: A cross-continental discussion

The United Kingdom and Australia enjoy strong higher education sectors with a large number of successful institutions – both ‘new’ and more established. Both countries have also recently seen extensive change in their higher education policy and funding environments, which will impact both the demand and supply sides of the sector.

As a result of recent changes, universities in the UK and Australia must ‘self-disrupt’ in order to remain competitive. Increased international student intakes, shifting revenue streams, a continuing drive for efficiency, and new models of research, teaching and learning, mean that there are significant opportunities and challenges to be addressed. ‘New’ universities can be particularly exposed to the impacts of change, given their sometimes more fragile positioning and resource base. However, their ability to react quickly and flexibly can also be an advantage as they compete with more established institutions.

Nous facilitated a discussion forum for Vice Chancellors and leaders from both UK and Australian ‘new’ universities, to share their experience and knowledge of emerging higher education models. This article summarises the main themes discussed at the forum.

Universities face inherent challenges in coping with change

A rapidly changing operating environment is disruptive in any sector. In higher education, there are some additional challenges to be overcome, due to the unique nature of the sector:

  • Culture change within universities can be particularly difficult – As universities are required to transform and become increasingly commercially minded, it can be difficult to take staff along on the journey. In a sector steeped in tradition and with strong ideological foundations, it can be a challenge to engage staff with some of the contemporary dilemmas facing universities, or shift their mindsets to accommodate the concept of students as customers as well as learners.
  • Universities must strike the right balance between teaching and research – To optimise staff capabilities and enhance financial sustainability, universities must find an appropriate balance between teaching and research. While in the UK the majority of academic staff continue to do both, many Australian universities have introduced research only and teaching only staffing models in order to ensure an appropriate balance between the two activities.

Universities must think outside of their own geography to remain competitive

Global connectivity is opening up new opportunities for universities as well as their students. The discussion at the Nous event touched on the following trends:

  • Transnational education and offshore campuses are becoming more common – Many universities from both the UK and Australia have expanded their operations internationally, with mixed results. Successful delivery requires a clear purpose, a secure exit strategy and a sustainable financial model.
  • Institutions are increasingly developing international partnerships – In Asia, high levels of government funding are being directed to well-established universities to improve growth and performance. In response, many Australian universities are working to collaborate and develop deep relationships with these universities.
  • Student recruitment is centred on higher profile cities – Particularly in the UK, student recruitment is challenging for universities located outside of London and other large cities. In smaller locations universities struggle to achieve reasonable size and power within the higher education system, and must find innovative ways to overcome this.

Universities must deal with dual – and often competing – agendas

Increasingly, higher education institutions are required to fulfil the roles of both a publicly orientated institution and an effective commercial entity. This demands that universities simultaneously work to two agendas, which are often in tension. These competing agendas manifest in a number of different ways including:

  • Universities are required to take a strategic approach to resource allocation in order to marshal the university’s capacity, yet also support a decentralised and empowered culture which maximises the potential of autonomously motivated talent.
  • Universities need to be internationally focused in terms of student recruitment, partnerships and global issues, but also connect with and accommodate the needs of their local community.
  • Universities may choose to maintain a comprehensive range of disciplines but also pursue specific disciplines which receive additional attention and resources.
  • Universities need to maintain an ethos of collegiality, but also become more commercially effective.

‘New’ universities must deliver a new level of differentiation and service

The rapidly changing higher education environment creates distinctive challenges for new universities. Often lacking the brand or funding resources of Russell Group or Group of Eight institutions, it is critical that new universities understand the need for competitive differentiation and embrace models which are precisely attuned to contemporary student requirements.

Better performing universities appear to make strategic decisions quickly, ensure their academic and business models are tightly aligned, and position their institutions more assertively. Through ongoing strengthening and superb customer experience, universities can effectively build their independence and immunity to short term government changes, thereby improving their likelihood of future success.

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