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No education system is perfect and higher education is certainly no exception. It has had and continues to have its fair share of challenges. Some are new and totally unprecedented such as the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has spread across the globe since late 2019 and disrupted higher education everywhere.

Some are unique to particular countries, for example, the recent Brexit process, which witnessed the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union and presents ongoing questions and concerns of both a financial and cultural nature for both students and academics.

But there are also challenges that are more generic in nature, such as equitable access to higher education, a transforming student demographic, ‘openness’ to international students, student engagement, student retention and the heightened role of new learning technologies.

These challenges exist in a reality of increasing operating costs, reduced budgets, pressure to seek revenue from non-government sources, along with ever-increasing regulatory demands to demonstrate attainment of high-quality academic standards, all while aspiring to improve reputation and ranking.

The traditional and continuing main functions of universities are to teach and to research and in so doing, meet the needs of society and improve it. The challenges the sector faces need to be met within that context.

The following represent some of these key challenges facing higher education – now overlain with having to find ways to best deal with the aftermath of a global pandemic. They particularly address the issues of increased worldwide competition for students in the sector, the increased role technology plays and the future of the ‘traditional’ degree vis a vis the rise of ‘just-in-time’ skills learning.

Increased competition

There are many more universities in 2020 for students to choose from as their preferred higher education provider than there were just 10 to 20 years ago.

Although studying at a university in, for example, Australia is still highly prized by many Asian students, the fact that there are more options to choose from closer to home, such as in China or Malaysia, that enjoy improved world rankings and are less costly than their Australian counterparts, has widened the attractive choices.

Universities have to work harder than ever to attract and retain students, especially as students decide whether a university degree is worth the return on their investment and given the climate of underemployment.

Some higher education institutions have responded to the increased competition by offering additional or more financially beneficial academic scholarships to attract new students, some are providing complimentary reliable wireless internet for their student body and others propose financial aid for study abroad options.

It is good for universities to remember that the two apparently most cited reasons students choose one university over another is for the quality of the education they will receive and the career opportunities that will potentially open up because of the recognised quality of the programmes offered.

Flexible study options

Increasingly for many students, a distinguishing factor in their choice of where to study is flexibility. University study is expensive and more and more young people need to work to support their study. Those institutions that offer both on-campus and online classes become a more appealing prospect.

The option of blending on-campus with online or going fully online can provide an enhanced opportunity to engage in higher education for students who are located in remote areas, who are engaged in full-time work or who have family commitments or medical conditions that prevent regular attendance on campus.

It means they can learn at their own pace, in their own time and from wherever they happen to be and so provides access to learning, convenience and flexibility. But a critical challenge is again making sure that the quality of what is offered online is of a high standard.

Universities need to put in place robust quality assurance mechanisms, assign appropriately qualified staff to develop and deliver online education and invest in providing them with relevant and timely professional support.

Just-in-time learning vs degree

Continuous and increasingly rapid advances in technology and the business world require graduates to be familiar with state-of-the-art knowledge and skills. Employers want employees who have both theoretical knowledge and understanding as well as hands-on practical know-how.

Some large companies like Google, Tesla, IBM and Apple no longer rely on a potential employee having a degree as a requisite point of entry. Their hiring decisions are based on evidence of other qualities and they provide particular targeted training on the job. They are looking for prospective employees who display generic qualities such as leadership, problem solving, customer service and good communication skills.

Given that today’s graduates can change jobs up to 10 or even more times during their lifetime, it seems reasonable to assume that there will be some skill (re)training required. Further, that in order to remain relevant, there is a need to persistently update knowledge, skills and understanding. Lifelong learning is no longer a slogan or an option, but a reality and necessity.

There is increased realisation that content-laden four-year degrees are not always as effective in today’s fast-paced environment and that employees are better served by ‘just-in-time’ skill development that is immediately useful.

That is not to say that university education will become redundant, rather that there will be increased scope for better articulation and credit arrangements and seamless qualification pathways. This will allow individuals to access purposeful learning opportunities throughout their career that fit with their particular circumstances.

The need to keep pace with the rapid rate of technological and economic change also means a potential increased role for professional and industry experts to input into curriculum. Such productive partnerships can help ensure that what is delivered is at the forefront of constructive knowledge and skills.

The quality of the education matters most

Without doubt, all students anticipate their time at university will include receiving a quality education experience – one that is meaningful and rewarding, incorporates contemporary, ‘best’ global practices and perspectives, is supported by cutting-edge learning resources, and is taught by academic staff who know how to make the teaching-learning experience engaging and interesting and who are knowledgeable in their field.

The goal is not about preparing graduates for the world of work they will enter today. It is about equipping them with the professional attributes and learning tools that will set them up for life to be flexible, creative, adaptable contributors to society. The institution’s organisational structure should ensure teaching and research are both able to flourish and, just as importantly, that it is agile and encourages innovation.

Dr Nita Temmerman has held senior university positions including pro vice-chancellor (academic quality and partnerships) and executive dean in Australia. She is an invited accreditation specialist with the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications and international associate with the Center for Learning Innovations and Customised Knowledge Solutions, Dubai. She is chair of two higher education academic boards, invited professor and consultant to universities in Australia, the Pacific region, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

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