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Education is a business: Attract and retain is the name of the university game

Increased federal government regulation, coupled with a recent round of funding cuts, is forcing Australian universities to change the way we see ourselves, the way we structure learning and the fundamental way in which we operate. Under this new reality, it is increasingly important to regard universities as businesses and to apply the same principles as any economically-driven enterprise.

Along with a blanket two-year freeze on Commonwealth funding for students in bachelor courses, from 2020 onward university funding will be contingent on performance. Performance boils down to student attraction and retention, so success will entail viewing students as customers and focusing on an offering that best aligns with the needs and expectations of that customer base.

This point of view is unpopular with many academics but as the economy changes, the education sector must change too.

The University of New England (UNE) is focused on being student-centric and on making sure that what we teach — and how we teach it — is responsive to our student’s needs. We have enjoyed a five-star student satisfaction rating for ten years in a row, so we know we’re doing something right. But no institution can afford to rest on its laurels, because expectations change over time, which means constantly adapting to suit those changing conditions.

UNE is recognised as a leading innovator in flexible online study. To us, technology is absolutely essential, and we believe other universities should be embracing available new tools and methods to gain competitive advantage.

Online learning offers great flexibility for students in when and where that study – many UNE degrees can be studied fully online, via smartphone or tablet from anywhere, at any time. Because most of our students are technologically astute, they are happy to use the available tools. In fact, they expect it.

As one of the first to offer courses online, UNE is obviously in favour of this new way of learning, but not all institutions are on board yet. There is a sizeable group of academics who are still strong proponents of the face-to-face learning model. Some universities are deliberately catering to 18-year-old school leavers who come from extremely well-resourced schools, yet they don’t believe in the online methods at all. Of course, this can be appropriate in some cases, as the sector must diversify; however, every university cannot offer the same thing.

Conversely, other institutions will elect to offer online study because its seen as an inexpensive way to increase reach. The issue here is not appreciating that interactivity is still a vital component of an online study model. Without an underlying collaborative ethos, these efforts are in danger of failing.

The key to success is for universities to offer a level of flexibility that meets student needs, regardless of the teaching model. A key reason for student attrition is that life issues get in the way. If a university says “well that’s tough, come back to us when times are better” is just not good enough.

There is a tendency in our industry to provide courses in a certain way and expect students to work their lives around it. What we need to be saying is, “how can we best make this work for you and how can we help you get to graduation?”.

Professor Annabelle Duncan — Vice Chancellor, University of New England

University of New England was a recent delegate and presenter at the Universities Australia 2018 Higher Education Conference in Canberra and is a longstanding TechnologyOne customer. TechnologyOne provides an integrated enterprise Software as a Service solution built specifically for the higher education sector.

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