Covid, funding reforms will ‘force differentiation in Australia’

Change may come from unexpected quarters, analysts warn, as crisis and Canberra upset the apple cart

November 29, 2020
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Canberra and the coronavirus may combine to force variety in Australia’s lookalike university sector, a forum has heard.

Former University of Melbourne chief operating officer Ian Marshman said the financial shock from Covid, the “reframing” of international education and recently legislated changes to government funding would spawn “a more highly differentiated university sector”.

“Universities are going to have to go back and look at their mission and define more acutely what business they are in, and…their niche within the overall mode of delivery,” said Dr Marshman, now an honorary principal fellow at the Melbourne Centre of the Study of Higher Education.

He told a webinar hosted by Melbourne’s LH Martin Institute that the federal government’s Job-ready Graduates reforms would also generate “significant shifts in institutional strategy”, as universities exploited the freedom to allocate teaching grants “in the way they see fit”.

The reforms, to be phased in next year after recently passing parliament, give universities more flexibility to finance postgraduate, undergraduate and sub-bachelor courses from a federal funding “envelope”. Dr Marshman said some universities would be able to cultivate “significant additional cohorts of students in particular disciplines and make good money out of it”.

“If they choose to do so, that may well be at the expense of other universities that possibly are mid-tier and don’t have the same ability to attract and retain students,” he told the forum.

Former Victoria University registrar Teresa Tjia said high-ranking universities should also be wary. “Some of the impacts might be counterintuitive,” said Ms Tjia, an honorary fellow with the LH Martin Institute.

She said universities that might not have been expected to fare well under pandemic conditions had significantly improved their student retention. “Some of those smaller, student-centred universities probably have better processes [and] commitment to individual student experience than the larger, potentially wealthier universities.

“Some have made real innovations to their learning and teaching. They have a real focus on people, and staff want to make sure their students do well. They’ve seen improvements to the retention of domestic students and have not been as reliant on international students.”

Ms Tjia said a US group’s recent buyout of Torrens University, one of just three private universities in Australia, signposted the sort of competition the sector could expect. “There’s money in the system internationally, looking to invest, and [it] still sees education is something worth investing in.

“The ability for some of the private [players] to grow in this marketplace is going to be really interesting.”

Dr Marshman said Australian universities faced competition from new quarters: “I’m not sure we know yet who our competitors are going to be over the next three to five years.”

“It may be that other universities are more advanced in terms of their modes of digital delivery than some of the more traditional campus-based universities. Some private sector universities are more advanced in this. A whole range of major digital providers are likely to be…able to deliver independently of the higher education infrastructure frameworks.”

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