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Standing out from the pack

Updated: Oct 28, 2020

The 39 Australian universities operating through 2020 have had a year unlike any other, however long each of them has operated, and whatever their origins have been. Their students, staff, leaders, and partners have never encountered anything quite like this.

We have an excellent set of universities in Australia. They punch above their weight in research, diversity, innovation, commitment to equity, and up until this year their attractiveness to growing numbers of international students. They have been pioneers in online education and digital innovation and some of the strongest examples of civic universities serving distinct and diverse priorities in community engagement.

They have steadily improved across the board in global university rankings. Our nation’s performance in global research and international education markets has been out of all proportion to our size, history and the resources and support given to the sector.

The sector has been built upon waves of university genres that progressively added to the cumulative stock. Our founding institutions, in the major capital cities, were research players and comprehensive educators of the professions and traditional areas of study. They were added to by long-established municipal institutes of technology that became new universities of technology, fuelling technical education that has formed the core of our current STEM agenda.

Our more recent peri-urban innovators, and regional city universities, pioneered social justice and inter-disciplinary pursuits. They developed new fields of study called for as Australia found its more influential and distinctive position in the world.

And our regional providers grew their research activities, to complement campus expansions and geographical outreach, that has brought university education to all corners of all of our states and territories. It is a ubiquitously high quality and improving group of providers, all operating in one national system.

From distinct origins, with a variety of missions, the biggest surprise and potentially greatest lost opportunity, has been how much they have all migrated towards becoming similar. They are currently largely set up to seek the same goals.

The race has been to be better and the same, rather than better and different. The commonality in the funding and regulation policies, and the application of a growing variety of rankings that measure them all by common criteria, has encouraged the dominant research players to also pursue a community engagement and widening participation agenda and the most mission-driven regional provider to also seek research excellence.

Few have dared to be different in an age where competitive advantage in other sectors through specialisation is commonplace. One of the principal drivers of differentiation and specialisation in other sectors, and the most significant strategic disruptor of a generation, has been digital innovation. It has long been heralded as the technology that will change, threaten and set apart universities, and provide opportunities for new entrants.

But up until now, few Australian universities have really pursued a clear differentiation strategy through technology and digital delivery. The motivation to do so has apparently not been as great as the forces that sees them all seek to be the same.

The principal exception in Australia could be argued to have been Deakin University. Over ten years or so, through relentlessly and vigorously pursuing a digital first strategy, Deakin has built upon its roots in distance education, to seek to do digital, better than all others. It stood out from the pack in a way that in turn encouraged some to try to follow it. But it appeared to have created a gap that most were struggling to close. And then 2020 happened.

The transitions and transformations, that for years and decades many had described as desirable, suddenly became implemented by necessity in days and weeks. It happened to all universities, not just some of them. It might be too early to call, and there is clearly much to be done in stabilising all universities and building those instant responses into sustainable and enduring quality, but have all universities now become digitally proficient? Has any competitive gap in digital capability between them effectively been closed?

The strategic landscape has been very significantly disrupted by the events of 2020. The eventual implications are only beginning to be spelt out. The digital imperative is now universal.

It seems likely that this new level playing field of digital ubiquity, and the emerging issues of new policy context, changed market demand, strained financial circumstances, global travel changes, and what it means to be job-ready, have all changed our strategic situation analysis irrevocably. This is now a time of new strategic opportunity.

It’s a time when all universities have the chance to explore other ways of standing out from the pack. How they will do that, through their creative use of technology, campuses, organisation, staffing changes, partnerships, missions and culture, we are only beginning to understand. A new breed of leaders with thrive in these circumstances. They will find great opportunity to tell inspiring stories and make their name.

In Jane den Hollander, lies the story behind the strategic digital innovation at Deakin over the last 10 years. She is able to observe how the digital gap Deakin established has since closed, and how there is now a chance to stand out from the pack in other ways. You can hear Jane’s story and her predictions for the future for the sector on Episode 7 of HEDx on Spotify and Apple and read about how HEDx seeks to change higher education for good.

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