Higher education’s challenges and opportunities in 2021

Higher education providers are not short of challenges this year as the COVID-19-induced crisis continues to bite, but there are also significant opportunities for the future.

Every year begins with challenges and opportunities for higher education providers. Perhaps this year – after a 2020 marked by the difficulties navigating the COVID-19 crisis – presents more challenges than most. The good news is the sector is also discovering the silver linings among the clouds, or the many opportunities that will position providers well for the future of education.

 

Three challenges

1. Uncertain international student flows

The need to restart the flow of international students back into Australia is the primary challenge for higher educators this year. With estimates of a $10 billion hit to the sector’s revenue if no international students arrive (and indications that returning Australians from overseas will be a priority, rather than the operation of quarantine programs for new international students), providers may be facing a difficult, prolonged period of financially damaging international student limbo.

2. Re-engineering long-term sustainability

Higher education providers – and in particular larger, globally prestigious institutions – are needing to re-examine many assumptions this year, from the value of their capital investments, built environments and campus design, to the cost-effectiveness of the way they deliver learning and the balance of their international student source markets. This will mean having to go beyond the urgent reaction to the immediate crisis we saw in 2020 to adopting a sustainable approach to the future.

3. Fostering mental health and wellbeing

Local and international student mental health and wellbeing has suffered in the last 12 months due to the need for social distancing and fewer job opportunities. Add to this the fast-changing nature of work, and students are under significant pressure. Higher educators are being challenged to create sustainable student wellbeing programs, facilitated by technology where possible, that ensure students can be regularly assessed and supported throughout the entire student journey.

 

Three opportunities

1. Undertaking digital transformation

The digital transformation journey in higher education has just begun. With an exploding universe of education technologies being created to service the needs of education providers and their students, providers now have a unique opportunity to use the impetus of COVID-19 to further embrace their digital transformation. This will create efficiencies in student admin and learning management, improve the student experience and prepare educators for a more digitally-enabled future.

2. Doubling down on employability

The alignment of higher ed with employment needs and outcomes will be a focus for students, the community and policymakers. This creates an opportunity to demonstrate the value of higher education in society and the world of work, more closely integrate the development and assessment of employability skills as part of the learning journey and make employer groups and practical work placements a more central part of informing and supporting learning in higher education.

3. Reimaging the student lifecycle

The traditional student lifecycle could be augmented and redesigned to accommodate the increased desire for shorter form, ‘just-in-time’ higher education and learning that supports students through a genuine lifelong learning journey (rather than front-loading learning between school and work). With the injection of more online-only or blended learning elements, higher educators could change the way a typical student journey looks like, to ensure it is fit for 2021 and the future of work.