Covid crisis could see 'learning designers' supplant academic roles

While overhauls of workforce and institutional architecture beckon, Australian report predicts esteem for expertise in post-pandemic world

May 8, 2020

Australian higher education must brace for possible university closures and mergers, a lost generation of academics and an emerging “two-tier system”, according to an analysis of the tectonic changes being ushered by the Covid-19 pandemic.

New trends could give rise to a wave of freelance academic “superstars” as institutional affiliations erode and “learning designers” supplant many traditional academics, says the report by the University of Melbourne’s Centre for the Study of Higher Education.

The “next generation of academics and researchers” could be lost to better-paying occupations as deteriorating employment conditions render university careers less appealing. Students may gravitate to explicitly vocational degrees leaving arts, commerce and some science degrees to wither on the vine.

“Radical policy options” could emerge to extract more bang from scarce taxpayer bucks. Tuition fees could be raised and differentiated by study mode and course level. Teaching and research funding could be prised “even further” apart, spawning a new push for teaching-only universities, while the erosion of expertise in some sub-disciplines could deprive Australia of a “valuable national resource”.

The paper analyses 10 factors likely to reshape global higher education – including uncertainties around international student flows, the online study boom, a likely narrowing of course choice and shrinking government investment – and their implications for the Australian sector.

Lead author Gwilym Croucher admitted that attempts at prediction were “fraught” amid the evolving policy response to the pandemic. Nevertheless, the report was an attempt to learn from past lessons, “gather insights, boil it down and put it in one place”.

“Obviously, nobody knows what’s going to happen,” he conceded. “Having said that, Covid seems to be exacerbating some trends and it’s all happening at once. In that sense we can probably say something meaningful about what the future might hold.”

He highlighted workforce issues as a particular challenge. Casual and sessional staff were likely to be jettisoned just as baby boomer academics retired and international recruitment was hampered by lingering travel bans.

“Because they are big, complex organisations and have highly skilled staff, universities are quite hard to scale up and scale down quickly. If people go somewhere else, it’s not like you can just replace them overnight. People are not necessarily waiting in the wings.”

Dr Croucher said much hinged on whether international student flows recovered, and students’ apparent acceptance of remote learning proved enduring. He noted that predictions of “online education being the future” had first emerged in the 1990s. “Thirty years later, on-campus is still considered by many people to be the gold standard.”

Nevertheless, fundamental shifts in Australian higher education architecture were almost guaranteed. The paper says some severely financially stressed universities are “probably already thinking about developing closer relationships with stronger institutions or even merging".

“State governments may soon be asked to contribute in a manner they have not for a generation,” it adds. “The financial strain and continuing absence of most international students may force radical restructure of university workforces and missions and the possible emergence of a two-tier or at least two-track system.”

But beneficial spinoffs of the crisis could include newfound respect for expert advice. Dr Croucher said university expertise had increased in prominence following major crises such as the Great Depression and the Second World War. “There’s an opportunity here for universities to lead.”

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