Higher Ed reimagined: navigating the three Rs to build agility and resilience

By Thomas King, Industry Executive – Higher Education, Microsoft Australia

The ‘three Rs’ of education was once all about reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic; the pandemic meant that higher education’s three Rs became respond, recover and reimagine.

Each year Microsoft hosts Campus Connections, it’s an opportunity to press pause, to gather with peers and to share insights and experiences as well as to look forward. This year, COVID-related restrictions meant that Campus Connections was a virtual event for the first time – but it still brought together leading thinkers to consider what higher education will look like as universities respond to the pandemic, attempt to recover from it, and reimagine their futures.

Explore the discussions from the Campus Connections Summit 2021 – Education Transformation: From Recovery to Reimagine.

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I spent more than 15 years in Australia’s higher education sector before joining Microsoft at the end of 2020 and it is impossible to overstate the impact that social distancing and international travel restrictions had on the sector last year. Students and academics were forced off campus for their own safety, international students and researchers were unable to reach Australia, professional staff were sent home. Some of those restrictions particularly the inability for international student to enter Australia persist in 2021.

The economic fallout has been profound, no matter how well universities were able to shift to remote teaching and learning models there were costs and losses, redundancies and restructuring.

According to Universities Australia[1], local universities shed at least 17,300 jobs in 2020 and lost an estimated $1.8 billion in revenue compared to 2019.

By some estimates[2], if international students cannot return at all this year, Australian universities risk losing $10 billion in tertiary fees. It is also unclear as yet the impact that the Government changes to higher education course fees will have locally.

Last year most universities put in Herculean efforts to ensure that students could continue to study, academics could continue to teach and research, and professional staff go about their work – albeit remotely for much of the year. Cloud computing and collaboration platforms like Microsoft Teams were deployed rapidly and changed the teaching and learning landscape forever.

That was the initial R – the response. As people attending Campus Connections heard, while universities are still responding to issues such as snap lock downs and social distancing requirements, many are deep in the recovery planning stage.

To my mind, response and recovery are critical tactical steps for universities. There is however a strategic opportunity now, to begin to reimagine the higher education landscape and to lay the foundations that will allow universities to foster genuine agility and resilience which is critical if they are to respond to the increasing volatility facing the sector.

One critical consideration for universities is where they want to be on the hybrid learning continuum. As I see it, there are five stages to this continuum;

  • Online only
  • Lean online with some face to face
  • Fully hybrid with an equal mix of online and face to face
  • Lean toward face to face with some online
  • Entirely face to face

It may be that a nursing degree needs to lean toward face to face with some online, allowing students to spend time on the wards, but participate in lectures online. An accounting degree however could potentially be delivered wholly online. Institutions offering lifelong learning through micro credentials may require a hybrid model.

Universities with modern digital ecosystems are best placed to support individual faculties as they navigate this hybrid learning continuum. Instead of wrangling multiple different systems to meet individual course requirements, a modern platform can respond flexibly and elastically – if there are fewer enrolments the platform can be wound back, if demand grows the platform scales immediately.

An integrated, secure digital ecosystem also renders data more accessible. This is the all-important key to reaping operational efficiency, supporting student success and retaining leading researchers. When data has to be scraped out of silos scattered across a university, data access can be patchy, and the data itself outdated or unreliable.

As universities review their five-year strategies, and truly reimagine higher education, there is the opportunity to review the digital landscape.

  • Are you hampered by fragmented and often expensive legacy that can’t scale easily?
  • Are you cyber secure?
  • Can you offer researchers and academics easy access to emerging technologies such as Internet of Things, AI, blockchain, augmented reality and in the very near future quantum computing?

Modern, integrated cloud technology platforms promise much needed cost savings but also allow universities to rapidly transform, and to build their internal digital capability, their agility and resilience allowing them not just to survive today’s challenges – but thrive in tomorrow’s.

[1] https://www.universitiesaustralia.edu.au/media-item/17000-uni-jobs-lost-to-covid-19/

[2] https://www.theaustralian.com.au/subscribe/news/1/?sourceCode=TAWEB_WRE170_a&dest=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.theaustralian.com.au%2Fhigher-education%2Funiversities-face-a-10bn-hit-after-scott-morrison-dashes-hopes%2Fnews-story%2F125899a3139c662f{“type”:”block”,”srcClientIds”:[“087edf39-dd31-4380-9e09-c6b9a1709a5d”],”srcRootClientId”:””}dabc8a553736c819&memtype=anonymous&mode=premium