Pre-COVID Roots, Post-COVID Shoots: Observations on Tertiary Education in Australia

 

 

Established

roots

 The Covid-19 pandemic has placed Australia’s tertiary institutions under intense pressure during the current lock-down conditions. It has also created uncertainty about their futures. We contend that the roots of what is likely to emerge after the pandemic have been deepening for some years. While some branches of the educational tree will inevitably be pruned, there will also in time be healthy new shoots.

Tertiary education’s pre-Covid roots support a massive structure. In employment and economic terms Australian universities educate 1.4 million students, employ 128,000 full-time equivalent staff and contribute $140 billion to the national economy. Australia is the second global destination of choice for international students, and education exports amounted to over $35 billion a year.

The tertiary sector is said to matter because of this economic significance, but more importantly it matters because higher education providers create value to society through qualified graduates ready for work and civic lives. Most importantly universities serve society through contributions in research, ideas, leadership, international networks, intergenerational connections and cross-cultural understandings. Universities are not, and never have been, just workplaces, businesses or export sectors.

The tertiary system is also one of the societal institutions most seriously impacted by the virus. There have been extensive losses in revenue, job losses, teaching turbulence, cuts in research budgets and depopulated university campuses. On the other side of the virus universities are potentially facing a preponderance of distance education, flexible intakes, adaptable time-tables, remote assessment and invigilation, under-utilised residences and campus facilities and the loss of the social connectivities for which they were once famed. The roots of these changes, however, were well grounded before Covid’s deadly strike.

Some past transformations in the tertiary sector can be attributed to the ‘corporatisation’ of universities, a pre-pandemic phenomenon. While corporatisation has different manifestations and connotations it has brought some benefits for universities’ organisation, management and complexion, for example in relation to demographic diversity, staff well-being and student retention. It has also fundamentally changed the internal dynamics of universities, including the interfaces between professional and academic staff, how performances across the sector are measured and the economic imperatives driving them. It has opened the sector, before the pandemic, to extensive use of technology, blended learning and teaching and competitive marketing. Ironically universities were, through the development of websites, blended education and digital accessibility of library resources, partly ‘pandemic ready’ before the earth moved beneath their roots.

Corporatisation, aided by technology, not only changed the structure of universities and educational methods but also how the sector became framed, both internally and externally. As noted above, tertiary education is a major ‘export industry’, it has a quantifiable ‘economic value’, subjects and degrees are now ‘products’, institutions have missions, visions and ‘brands’, they are marketed in terms of ‘competitive edges’ and they try to attract the best-qualified ‘customers’ through admission pathways, bursaries, school partnerships and sports scholarships. While their voices are hardly mute, academics were arguably experiencing considerably less discretion within these structures than they have had in previous times, with management and professional staff imposing increasing performance strictures and measurement metrics on their work.

Quantitative metrics came to abound in the sector: in performance indicators, in teaching allocations and evaluations and in measurements of research and its impacts – all involving factors relatively easy to measure. Qualitative factors such as staff collegiality, mentoring of new teachers, student pastoral care, accessibility to and service for the community, and responsiveness to institutional needs are less easy, or impossible, to measure than the quantitative factors.

Pre-pandemic developments had already increased university competition for research funds. They were confronted with reduced state funding and created greater dependency on tuition revenue and philanthropic donations – and in particular on income from international students. There was also an increase in staff specialists in management, public relations, human resources and marketing, each with their own values, priorities and expectations, shifting universities’ priorities and practices. These, in brief, were some of the realities of university systems when the virus disrupted their trajectory.

 

Pruning

the

branches

The above realities have come into stark relief as the pandemic has wrought serious disruptions to universities. The loss of international students, the collapse of budgets, new (and sometimes expensive) technological demands and near-exclusive distance education have had major impacts on all aspects of their functioning. The pandemic has also occasioned the implosion of micro-economic systems surrounding universities; the book shops, cafes and gyms that once attracted customers and revenue have led to universities taking significant financial haircuts as their campuses emptied.

A consequence of the pandemic has inevitably involved the pruning of some ‘branches’. Just as African fever trees direct the hazardous toxins drawn from the soil to ‘sacrificial’ branches, which blacken and fall and leave the tree healthy and vital, so will be sacrificial branches in the tertiary sector in terms of personnel, course offerings, value for students and campus amenities.

As regards staff, some professionals have been obliged to take leave and numerous part-time and sessional academics have lost their positions – one Council of Deans created a register that quickly attracted over 240 out of work academics (in one discipline alone) available for teaching in a full range of compulsory and elective subjects. Conferences, research leave and fellowships for academics have been cancelled, and research has been de-prioritised as profile staff are assigned more burdensome teaching loads.

At the same time academic course offerings are being pruned in according to demand, financial return and the teaching areas of continuing academics. Elective subjects, often offered by sessionals, were the first to be pruned. Again, however, these are more drastic versions of well-established practices of discontinuing subjects, degrees and departments because lack of demand has made them unviable – in a commercial sense.

As regards value for students, they are currently experiencing very different learning conditions. The face-to-face experience has ceded to online delivery, assessment and consultation, developed out of the technology, infrastructure and policies previously in place. For students the impacts are yet to become clear. The new regimes will have advantages in terms of flexibility and accessibility for some students, but the educational experiences of others may feel undernourished. Loss of face-to-face teaching methods could have negative consequences for some students’ learning styles, with less collegiality, inter-personal discussion, impromptu discovery and practical exercises. All forms of communication are encoded in different ways, whether written, oral or screen-based, and it may prove difficult for some students to decode what is on and between the lines in virtual presentations, however sophisticated the technology and connectivity. Many are already familiar with Zoom-fatigue as a consequence of the changes.

As regards campus amenities, even before the virus the physical footprints of large residential institutions were proving expensive to maintain. Despite the attractions of modern tax-payer supported learning and teaching facilities, teachers in pre-Covid innocence circulated pictures of vacant classrooms when tutorials should have been in session. The current work-from-home (WFH) arrangements have resulted in kilometres of corridors and unoccupied offices and hectares of vacant lecture theatres, library spaces and tutorial rooms. Most institutions have closed parts of their campuses; some closures will likely be permanent. Pruning the university makes immediate budgetary sense for institutions intent on remaining viable ‘businesses’.

Educational priorities such as ‘the student experience’, ‘student well-being’, ‘retention programs’ and ‘work-readiness’ have also been affected by the short-term effects of the pandemic. Take the much-vaunted ‘student experience’, which has different meanings in different contexts but has always connoted at least some physical proximity. During the pandemic it has instead transformed into a virtual experience with the remoteness, isolation and alienation this implies. Studies will in due course show how this benefits some students and disadvantages others.

Traditional universities are not the only Covid-affected higher education providers. There are more than 130 private institutions in Australia conferring degrees, diplomas and certificates, many of which cater predominantly for international students. While their unit costs are lower than those of residential universities, with small campuses, modest facilities and many contract staff, nearly half were at high or moderate risk well before the virus. Again, these are pre-pandemic trends that have been accentuated by the virus.

 

Shoots

ahead

What can we expect in the tertiary sector after Covid-19?  The common cliché in this area is that no-one really knows. We suggest two possible options.

In the ‘business as close to normal’ (BCN) approach there will likely be contraction in the sector in the pandemic’s short-term afterlife, largely through loss of international students. It will be tempting, in response, to decrease costs by further reducing professional staff and continuing academics, and by shifting to casual or sessional staffing arrangements. Faced with thinner margins, universities might elect to continue with less F2F teaching, even after physical distancing is no longer required. This could potentially exacerbate the decline in standards previously underway in some disciplines.

Fixed costs will be less easily managed and the physical campuses, properties and amenities held by residential universities will impose even heavier resource burdens with the reduced economies of scale. If universities are already ‘selling’ educational ‘products’, they might continue the theme by leasing buildings, selling off commercial outlets and hiring out sporting complexes, residential colleges and other facilities. This, too, was happening marginally pre-pandemic, but could be greatly accelerated in its aftermath.

More dramatically, some institutions might become bankrupt or be merged or acquired by larger ones under the pressure of continued competition for students and dollars, productivity imperatives, increasing managerial prerogatives and metrics around every quadrangle corner. A contributor to the THE has suggested they may opt to learn from banks and other financial institutions in terms of these businesses’ past and current trajectories – closure of branches, reduction of ATMs, shifts to virtual money, online loan applications, telephone advisory services and keeping ahead of rivals by promoting new products. Arguably there are analogies for each of these factors in the university sector.

An ‘alternative to normal’ (ATN) approach could be adopted after the pandemic, along the lines of suggestions which have been made for the national economies, the environment, welfare systems and other features of post-pandemic societies. As optimistic gardeners in the educational estates, we look forward to some healthy new ATN growth shoots emerging from the established root stock. We think the new growth could well include:

  1. Greater collaboration among tertiary institutions with shared and complementary course offerings, resources, systems and staff along with stronger international networks with like institutions;
  2. Innovations in delivering and marketing on-line courses to students abroad – while losing international students has damaged universities, virtual teaching gives them potential international reach, despite tough competition globally;
  3. Greater attention to domestic student needs, with fluid and flexible pathways and transitions in and out for engaged lifetime learners, also special provisions for those unable to regain employment;
  4. Rethinking ‘work-ready’, given that many employers complain that graduates are not qualified according to their hiring needs because they lack superior literacy, real-world understanding or a social conscience – the pandemic is a constant reminder that the future of professions and occupations is uncertain and educational experiences will be redesigned to form graduates who are better prepared to successfully navigate uncharted territories;
  5. Connecting with students who work and with their working world – In the last decade more students have been doing both full-time study and full-time work.  Those without work seek to be employed in ever competitive markets and universities will become more involved in developing career paths and working opportunities for students in new and creative ways;
  6. Rethinking and repositioning micro-credentialing and continuing professional development courses;
  7. Increased student engagement and involvement in university policies and in determining educational experiences with systems that bridge generational divisions and ameliorate the tensions of the student-as-consumer ethos;
  8. After an initial tightening, we can hope to see a pendulum shift back from the negative trends associated with corporatisation and managerialism towards refinement of purpose and vision with increased relevance and attention to social and environmental values;
  9. New roles for and engagement with academics who have been side-lined, yet have proven teaching and research skills; and
  10. Assuming ongoing responsibility for the nearly 80,000 researchers in many institutions whose valuable work has been jeopardised by drop-offs in grants and endowments.

The post-Covid changes are likely to be beneficial for some institutions, especially those of larger size, international reputations, diversified operations and revenue streams and abreast of online technologies, as long as they can respond with some agility to changing conditions. Those which in the past retained strong domestic markets and did not chase international revenue also have an advantage. Others may struggle to survive, but inevitably all of this will mean a good deal of adjustment for all, and a sense of nostalgia for those unable to transition as the new growth takes over. While the new roots require new ways of thinking and new forms of social ordering, that is exactly what universities should be about.

Liz Spencer and Laurence Boulle have, between them, taught at universities in Europe, Africa, North America and the Pacific, and at nine Australian institutions.