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What is going on out there? Opinion

As we enter December, we are bringing to a close many of the internal changes demanded of our universities by the happenings of 2020. 

Our “return to campus” plans are getting advanced, we are opening internal borders, the success of local pandemic management plans, and the longer-term hopes for a resumption of international students and international travel that are starting to appear on the horizon with the possibility of vaccines.

We are finishing consultation on plans for trimmed workforces, set scaled-back budgets that await council sign off, and are progressing plans for organisational change processes to be implemented in the new year.

It will be chaotic for a while for sure. Overcoming the grief of departed colleagues, having fewer resources, and settling into new portfolios, academic groups, roles and teams will see much treading on toes, and learning new patterns for a while into the new year.

We have, by necessity, had to have a very strong focus on what goes on, and what is possible, inside our universities, for the greatest part of this year.  And the plans we have put in place will require an internal focus for much of the new year. What has changed in the world outside in the meantime? And what further changes await in 2021?

The answer is just about everything. Our students have accelerated their expectations, aspirations and practices for new forms of learning. Our staff have got used to remote working and new ways of engaging with each other, their institution and our partners. 

The world of work, that we aim to prepare our graduates for, has changed beyond recognition. There are fewer jobs, and will be for a while. And the jobs that are there, that include greater casualisation, are very different than what we had in mind when we designed and implemented programs of study at the start of 2020 and before. 

When we moved everything online in a week or two, and found ways of getting to the end of the year with student retention, staff sanity, and university finances intact, we would have had little chance to listen to, let alone respond, to the way the outside world has changed.

These changes in how staff, students and partners are experiencing our universities and have expectations of them, and the changes in the future of work, were all happening anyway. But 2020 has accelerated them, and added extra dimensions and dynamics. And nothing will be going back to what we envisaged at the start of this year. Or anything much like it.

So, once we have caught our breath, we need a new external scan of the environment, and to reset our designs, practices and business models in response. This would be difficult if we didn’t have fewer staff and resources and were not in the midst of the biggest set of changes each of our institutions, and the sector as whole, has ever faced.

Doing it in 2021 is going to call for new, different and re-energised ways of reaching out to, and engaging with, changes in our students and the future of work.

Relying on our own experiences from decades before, academy-led perspectives of what our students need, or traditional professional institution perspectives on the future, were not going to cut it before all of this. Relying on them now will be major impediments to getting it right from here on, that’s for sure.

The acceleration in changes of student needs and expectations, and in the future of work, is going to call for a transformation in how our slimmed down, and still distracted, institutions engage with the outside world. We might need to rethink the personas behind the design thinking of any mapping of student journeys. And we might need a change in mindset and how we do things. Maybe engaging near-term futurists in our course design, learning design, student services, and physical and virtual environment facility design, more than our own seasoned practitioners of how we did it in our day.

And most of all we are going to need a change in perspective and attitude and leadership from the top. The great business leaders are able to visualise, empathise with, and respond to the changing needs of customers. The best do it faster than their competitors.

We don’t have customers in universities, do we? They are students, and we have built our reputations and modus operandi on knowing what and how we can educate future novice professionals for the world we have studied, created and provided knowledge for. 

That worked, to a point, when the world was stable. I would suggest that what we need right now are leaders with exceptional ability to muster resources, data, teamwork and systems and processes that learn how students and the future of work will change, and make sure the whole institution skates to where the puck is moving to. It is the route to success.

This was the theme for last week’s HEDx podcast on Campus Review Radio with Jan Owen AM, formerly CEO of the Foundation for Young Australians. She set out the case for being 21st Century Fit. You can hear the podcast again here.

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