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Reimagining… university: opinion

Reimagining… is a series of papers illustrating design-thinking as a way of addressing the challenges of post COVID disruption.

Australian universities are in the grip of a new world order and face a challenge to their very existence. Their reason for being – learning, research and service – has not changed. Our need for education to lift populations out of poverty, to create a level playing field of opportunity despite economic inequality and to compete on ability without prejudice is still a fundamental ingredient of democratic society and remains the basis of the knowledge economy.

COVID-19 has challenged our higher education institutions with dire consequences, some of which have inspired groundbreaking innovations.

Since May 2020 campuses across the country have shut down, forcing learning and teaching online. Universities with a large reliance on international student fees have been hit hardest. The lure of campus lifestyle, the collegiate and social environment that underwent much innovation in recent years has vaporised overnight, affecting the sense of connectivity and diluting the student learning experience.

The pandemic has driven change at an unprecedented pace and shown that we learn and adapt quickly to adversity giving rise to innovation with positive outcomes. Now is the time to build on these insights and reimagine the university of the very-near future.

Under this premise, we propose six questions for university leaders to address as they prepare for the new normal. For each of these questions we outline the current conventional wisdom and then the proposition for change which benefit staff, students and the institution itself. Finally, we propose some initiatives as a catalyst for change.

What does a successful university look like?

Conventional wisdom: To successfully attract the best undergraduate students, research funding and to climb the university ranking index.

The incumbent methodology driving outcomes involved crafting an image of success and prestige. The ‘sandstones’ had a head start with initiatives such as: expensive capital development projects, trophy buildings, expansive landscape works; translational hubs which bridge research and the market to leverage the profile of the partner institutions; and carrot and stick culture for the volume of published research and access to grants.

Universities weaning themselves off the elixir of international student revenue will be rethinking their glamorous capital expenditure projects, at least in the mid-term. The reality of the student experience now is that all learning is delivered digitally online. Tutorials, lectures, readings, perhaps peer to peer learning are carried out from home. Thus, the emphasis on impressive bricks and mortar facilities (preferably sandstone) must now shift to prioritise a great digital learning environment.

The physical campus will surely remain, although the constraints of social distancing mean that space, particularly indoor space, must operate at significantly reduced occupancy. Some of these spaces are suitable for lower student numbers such as wet chemistry labs, however others such as lecture theatres may no longer be viable. This could drive a significant investment towards repurposing adaptable structures or redeveloping redundant structures.

In this context of reduced revenue universities may also invite other commercial delivery models to the table. This might come in the form of property divestment, long-term lease or developer-operator partners as in translational hub delivery models.

Universities must be mindful of the unintended consequences of pursuing increased international rankings at the expense of initiatives to drive campus integration ensuring relevant community infrastructure is developed in partnership across the precinct.

How to build a diverse and inclusive (D&I) institution?

Conventional wisdom: Current D&I initiatives are enough to sustain the goals for ongoing change.

What does D&I look like in a digital environment? There will still be staff and support services. There will still be a broad range of candidates for courses with particular needs. To achieve a culture of diversity, inclusiveness must be practiced at all levels and in all functions of the institution. Moving to digital delivery channels will require active D&I course entry criteria, learning design and mixed mode learning interface options which cater for the needs of all.

What delivery channels and learning models should be used to meet our core mission?

Conventional wisdom: An armoury of formal and informal learning spaces, technologies and furnishings, which facilitate connectivity for in-person, group, individual and peer learning interface.

The day before delivering my project management lecture to students at UTS I was advised the lecture theatre would be empty and my lecture would be broadcast live to the students and recorded. Students' questions were hosted on the chatline after.

My next lecture at USyd was presented as a pre-recorded video with voice and visuals. Soon my digital avatar may replace me altogether until such time that the content is redundant, then perhaps artificial intelligence will augment my lectures with relevant updates.

While COVID may have put paid to many physical learning environment design innovations of the past decade, the principles of evidence-based learning design remain relevant.

The collaborative, social, ‘sticky-campus’ was the object of much capital investment. The underlying assumption is that students can be encouraged to hang around the campus beyond class, they will socialise ideas and potentially turn into research students. More effective in some contexts than others, particularly where there were few organic alternatives.

For example, the University of Newcastle Newspace building was developed in the context of a regional city CBD renewal and completed in 2018. It gained industry accolades for its porous, civic planning initiatives in particular, the ground floor foyer and vertical circulation enabling public access throughout the building. Learning spaces were equipped with state-of-the-art ICT and flexible furnishings. Now these spaces sit empty, designed with warm, comfortable finishes without appropriate infection control or social distancing in mind; in a global pandemic they are a serious health risk.

The uptake for digital learning channels during COVID was instantaneous and prolific. Additional learning content was uploaded and expanded to cover entire courses rather than merely supplementary resources. This was a relatively simple adaptation of existing platforms to provide an accessible, intuitive learning interface to distribute content. Similarly, assessment tasks have been managed via email or in the cloud for some time. However, examinations conducted remotely are not so straightforward.

My recent experience conducting exams for professional registration under interview conditions required candidates to demonstrate there were no props or notes within the room they occupied for the examination. This may necessitate temporary occupancy of controlled facilities for examinations or remote proctoring – perhaps a new market in itself. An agile and cost-effective methodology is required here.

Despite the challenges, online platforms have enabled learning to continue throughout lockdowns, quarantine and travel bans. The question remains: will international students continue to pay a premium for a degree earned from their bedroom? Perhaps.

Security and probity are more important to education delivery than ever before, another opportunity for market-driven innovation. As management of the pandemic evolves, the opportunity for mixed-mode and blended learning has facilitated some face-to-face learning on campus.

Another opportunity arises here for universities to invest further in digital capture and presentation of recyclable learning content to lower delivery costs and potentially expand international student numbers into the future. Universities have invested in this for some time, for example Camtasia desktop capture technology or ECHO360. The issue has been that they often produce content that dates quickly because it contains contextual information. Short videos or other learning objects presenting key ideas with editable embedded modules that can be consumed anywhere at any time would be a reasonable goal. A renewed focus on currency and insight should uplift the quality of undergraduate learning and expand the potential student base. The ranking index should respond in kind.

Taking the next step, international students of the near future may seldom attend the host campus, and access physical university resources from their own country. With such a light capex footprint, universities could potentially operate from any corner of the world. Thus, the constraint of enrolment numbers becomes detached from the campus real-estate and the burden falls on the administration of assessment and feedback. In other words, individuals’ fees could drop reasonably while the volume of participating students increases significantly. However, a shift in expectations may be required towards the standard deviation of student pass rates.

What campus services are required for a high-quality student experience and what aren’t?

Conventional wisdom: The campus should be peppered with casual learning and private study spaces, retail, hospitality, health services, outdoor amenity, sports facilities to create a learning and social community.

The current level of student services available on campus varies between institutions, however sports facilities, cafés, bars and retail feature in most. These require capital to develop, wages and expenses to run. Although some may generate revenue in the form of rent, they are not core business activities. They are provided to attract enrolments by providing lifestyle enhancements to staff and students.

The link to core-business for such resources is bound within the concept of the ‘sticky campus’. But can universities sustain these costs moving forward? Are there opportunities for the campus to integrate with external providers to create a fringe zone of the campus to host these services which is commercially developed and operated?

What is our business model?

Conventional wisdom: Full-fee students subsidise government capped funding for local students.

Returning the balance sheet to black…

Undergraduate student numbers are currently capped by the federal government, so local students cannot be tapped as a source of revenue growth. The dependency on international student numbers to bolster revenue has driven universities in a blind pursuit of international rankings. Whilst this generates some great results, as with any KPI-driven culture the reward for hitting metrics at the expense of common sense creates skewed outcomes.

University ranking indices focus on many variables and not all are relevant to all students. Most of the ranking systems are heavily biased towards universities with reputational heritage and research profiles. Universities without such a profile might focus on vocationally oriented studies. Interested parties should therefore be aware that ranking systems generally promote well-established more traditional universities and do not give much credit to younger universities, which might be more focused on producing job-ready graduates for a diverse range of careers.

The university ranking systems themselves are multi-million dollar businesses which charge a fee for universities to participate and then charge again for passing on student referrals and to advertise on their websites. They may provide useful context, however it is essential that students focus on their own requirements and how they can best be met. Likewise, the universities should take this opportunity of drastic change in market conditions to pivot their focus towards success metrics which are relevant for local students to guide capital investment and campus master planning.

How do we challenge the conventional wisdom?

Staff and students are currently required to direct or complete coursework online from home. In many cases home means a jurisdiction outside of Australia. International students who returned home during the first wave of the pandemic now face considerable barriers to re-entry. This has triggered a forecast revenue hole across the sector of $4.6B per annum.


Why not?

  • Reimagine and repurpose existing campus services assets to reduce operating costs and redefine their potential contribution to the campus and the general community, both economically and culturally.
  • Improve agility within the learning institution to derive performance under changing conditions. Consistent innovation investment underpinning the ways that learning content is captured, presented and updated using best practice technologies to provide feedback loops and peer connectivity. For example, various teaming software platforms could be adapted to provide students connectivity with real time progress updates, peer to peer communication and qualitative feedback. AI and global partnerships could be utilised to drive up the value of the student learning experience and bring down cost per capita.
  • Leverage existing capital to meet the needs of all with limited resources.
  • Restart economic activity driven by equity of need


  • Predictive analytics is the science of collecting data sets which are indicative of certain performance, then building a model where interdependent inputs can be varied to identify trends or outliers and determine efficacy. For example, a campus model could be built from relevant data points throughout the academic term such as course enrolments, climate and Federal Government policy changes mapped against space utilisation. The input data can be manipulated to simulate future possible scenarios and thus provide a relative measure of the resilience of an asset. This can be used to prioritise CAPEX to align with potential external disruptors or innovations in the learning delivery plan.
  • Establish and participate in local community and business networks to build local economies.


  • Conduct a stakeholder consultation process starting with a virtual workshop. The objective of the workshop is to build a mud-map of the organisation including a governance and conflict escalation process. A bespoke briefing tool is then used to identify values within the patterns of decision making. Values are the filter by which decisions are made. With these values we are able to unlock the potential of the organisation and plot a sustainable development pathway.
  • Predictive analytics creates data rich models to generate activity heat-maps to overlay with sustainability objectives to identify potential alignments and vulnerabilities.
  • Build a network of hubs or Centres of Excellence across partnerships and sites including service providers, local amenities and other universities.
  • Conduct feasibility analysis and preliminary reporting for proposed CAPEX prior to generating a full business case.

Vaughn Lane is director of Why Not? a multidisciplinary team focused on improving society through the intersection of the economy, the city, culture and technology.


Reimagining higher education in the United States. McKinsey and Co. 26 October 2020

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