How the UK and Australia could collaborate to compete in digital transformation

Australia and the UK have a close, familial relationship, and the same goes for their higher education sectors. Though distinctive in some ways, the parallels offer potential for learning and knowledge exchange, especially about digital transformation and understanding of competitive environments and markets.

In both countries, the sectors face challenges associated with digitalisation, access and diversity, shifts in revenue streams and ways of funding, value for money, global competition, relevance and graduate employability.  Both are subject to constant drives for efficiency and calls for change. Recently, the Australian Federal election returned the coalition government to a third term of office. Hence, caps on university places remain, resulting in ongoing challenges. In the UK, the Augar review of post-18 education and funding, a new Prime Minister, and all the incredible twists and turns of Brexit, lead to an even more uncertain outlook. Traditional cultures and practices in higher education are hard to transform in both countries – almost as much in Australia’s younger sector as in the UK’s. Instability in the external environment coupled with universities’ typically risk-averse cultures often lead to standstills in innovation. Perhaps in these precarious times, agility could be more valued and enable growth for higher education in both countries?

International engagement

19.9 per cent of the UK’s 2.3 million students are international, compared with 23 per cent of 1.5 million students in Australia. Universities in both countries are very ambitious about their ongoing position in the world’s rankings and both enjoy a reputation for excellence. Partly as a result of these rankings, after the US, the UK and Australia are second and third in the world for recruiting international students to their campuses. In both countries, the main conversations are about methods of “importing” students to study on campuses, with all the barriers and challenges that are involved.

More recently, interest from overseas has led universities to consider “exporting” higher education, allowing international students to obtain a UK or Australian degree without leaving their homes. For example, both countries have a history of establishing campuses and location-based alliances overseas, from boutique to largish collaborations, often with altruistic intentions and as part of their internationalisation strategies. There have been mixed results, with some well-meant partnerships already closed and others proving a drain on the home institution’s resources. The UK has around 45 overseas campuses; Australia reports 21 campuses abroad. For both countries there are challenges, most notably, the preparedness of local students for higher education, levels of fees and adaption of curricula.

Mixed-mode learning could add value to overseas campuses provision and support students’ transitions. In Australia, OES’s first partnership for online learning was with Swinburne University of Technology, in Melbourne, back in 2011. Swinburne’s Malaysian campus is now also becoming involved in online too.

There are limited numbers, so far, of universities in both countries that are tackling full degree, fully digital programmes made available domestically and internationally. There are still gaps waiting to be filled with high quality future-proofed digital educational programmes. Australia has the potential to be a little ahead here, as Australian curricula tend to be a bit more open and flexible than in the UK, meaning choice of disciplines, levels of programmes and modes of learning can be suitably flexed to meet entirely digital students’ rather different needs.

If we really wanted to innovate, we could use the difference in academic years in the two  countries to our mutual advantage. In the UK students attend from September to June. In Australia, students return in February after the summer and Christmas break and it’s easy to use beautiful campus locations for big gatherings. If we could get some good collaborations and articulations underway, we could offer a “Follow the Sun” degree – which shouldn’t take more than two years in total!

Domestic recruitment and widening participation

Australia’s population continues to grow around one per cent faster, year on year, than the UK’s due to its higher birth and immigration rates. The UK population is more static, with, for another year or two, a downturn in the numbers of people reaching traditional university entrance age, with growth expected thereafter. Rates of employment and overall spend on education in both countries are fairly similar, with Australia a little higher. The biggest difference is in population density, with the UK at 272 people per square km, whereas Australia has only three people per square km. This phenomenon explains the challenge of reaching the more remote areas of Australia for higher education and the long-term traditions of distance learning. There is a far greater likelihood of students in Australia studying at a university in their home city; many live at home and commute locally to study. In the UK, the tradition is to reside in a different city to study, with accommodation available on campus.

Efforts to widen participation to under-represented groups are a focus for both countries. In late 2018, the Australian government announced an AUS $135 million funding boost for regional (outside the biggest conurbations) universities, alongside the development of a national strategy for increasing regional, rural, and remote higher education participation.

In my view, in both countries, a major rethink about the insistence of “going to university” and the dominance of location-based universities could lead to increased access to, and participation in, higher education. Most notably, because cohorts attending a physical place and those learning digitally have different needs and goals for their education and how it fits with their lives, designing courses that can be undertaken on campus, digitally or a mixture of the two can lead to an increase in the total numbers of students, both on campus and online and perhaps on a global basis.

Experience in Australia has generated evidence that entirely online learning increases access to higher education from a range of groups and has a great contribution to make to widening participation. Eight years after Swinburne University of Technology first partnered with OES to provide large scale digital learning for undergraduates, 23 per cent are from rural or regional areas and 17 per cent report lower socio-economic status. At least 25 per cent are first in family to attend university.

Employability and skills

Relevance and value of degrees are always on the agenda and open to scrutiny and challenge across undergraduate and postgraduate provision. In both countries, employers challenge universities to keep their courses germane to changes in industry practice.  Nearly all students cite their future employability of importance to their choices of where, what and how to study.

The UK Augar review focused on a skills mismatch in the economy, specifically a dearth of skills at levels four and five, and recommended a lifetime learning allowance. A recent OECD report on the Australian economy noted a number of threats to growth in employability outcomes, among them a mismatch between what universities achieve in their graduates and what the economy needs. The OECD said Australia needs to “get better in understanding the skills imbalances and their causes”. These warnings are not fully borne out in the comparative data (in the UK 73 per cent of graduates are in full-time employment six months after completing their studies; in Australia 87 per cent of undergraduates are in employment four months after their completion). Nevertheless,  governments will continue to aim to anticipate skills requirements of the future, manage the indebtedness of graduates and foster life-long learning approaches for populations likely to be long living in uncertain economic times.

“Earn and learn” through online degrees continue to be a possibility, hence many institutions are considering whether digital is an option for them. The next stage for both countries is to consider the impact of Industry 4.0 and perhaps too Globalization 4.0.  New curricula and new skills are required. In my view, it is likely that the countries that gets ahead on these will start to pull forward on international student recruitment, and maybe domestic too. In the post-Brexit era, could UK and Australia come together to meet Globalization 4.0?

Collaborate to compete

There are already significant research and academic collaborations between UK and Australia particularly at institutional levels, and much knowledge exchange at conferences and through publishing. Though the Australian and the UK sectors could be considered in competition, deeper collaboration to explore diversification of curricula, qualifications and modes of study could bring benefit to both countries. I suggest the focus should be on digital capability of all kinds, much more meaningful and valuable use of data, student diversity and access and how entirely online might meet and exceed intentions of internationalisation in all its forms. My approach is to facilitate quick and fast workshops with people with similar interests from both countries using systems and design thinking with “futuring” techniques. Organisations that are active in several countries can act as bridges to facilitate closer dialogue and collaboration.

One response to “How the UK and Australia could collaborate to compete in digital transformation

  1. Hi Gilly — very interesting article. Thank you, would you mind directing me to the source of your stats on graduate employment in UK and Australia? Kind regards, Fiona

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