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How do we become a hybrid university? Opinion

There is a tension and dynamic playing out in the sector in many of our institutions of what comes next.

Another budget has come and gone. It leaves us in no doubt that public funding relief for either our research, or our core teaching and learning missions, will not happen. We have been denied the largesse bestowed in other directions, and to other sectors, not because of an oversight to be corrected. The government has made it abundantly clear that the high-water mark of public funding has passed, prioritising short-term international student returns will not happen, and they expect universities to change business models.

This being the case, in most cases you wouldn’t know it. Many continue to appear to be in hope for the return of all that we had. After celebrating the mass move to online in 2020, the question must now be asked: Are we risking undoing any gains from that emergency action by expecting a full return to campus and the past?

While schools around the world appear to be returning to on-campus attendance mode, and other workplaces struggle with defining working from home and office attendance expectations, practices and processes, what is our long-term expectation and model for our universities?

The concept that has gained ground is of a new hybrid way of working. It is a model learnt in a hurry that other sectors have been migrating towards for longer. When our learning moved fully online, and operated from lockdown, a complete migration from campus-based operations and learning was a necessity. This endured for much of 2020. The latter stages of 2020 and 2021 have been replaced with what started off as an interim solution. 

Many classes this year have been offered in dual mode. This has included on-campus sessions, responding to pressure from both those international students who are still onshore, and domestic students who are each equally looking for experiences to reflect the levels of fees and investment. But, in most cases, these are duplicated with repeat or parallel online offerings of the same curriculum and content. We have offered these to offshore international students that we are desperate to retain, and for the now more diverse situations and expectations of domestic students, who now live quite different lives.

This has been an overhead cost to our institutions at times when money has never been tighter. But even more so it has been an overhead of stress, expectation and labour for our staff. They are now required to do more with less, using technologies they were, in many cases, poorly prepared for and supported in. 

Our universities have until now mostly delegated on-campus learning to content expert academics, supported by large groups of casual and sessional staff and support staff. These groups evolved learning practices in pre-pandemic times, without much assistance and support from their universities. The performance expectations of academics were more about doing funded research, publishing cited papers, and welcoming partners to our open campuses than they were about being learning technology innovators.

The switch to fully online has required all academics to master learning technology, develop new understandings of pedagogy, and learn how to design equitable learning experiences to meet the needs of increasingly stressed students. And they largely did it themselves. The new burden of mastering hybrid learning is now falling on reduced numbers of academics, with fewer support resources available to them at times when their own lives are still turned upside down.

In 2020, some thrived, but many sank. Some had been well prepared, and others had no capacity to respond. All are now being expected to walk and chew gum through 2021. 

What will we expect of them in 2022 and beyond? Will we measure them by how much they return to a focus on papers, grants and external funding? Will we expect the accelerated technology and learning innovation to be forgotten, forsaken and forgone without further use? Will we return to fully campus-based learning with the exception of online learning activities of enthusiasts and specialists? Will we expect these to target the same small markets that used to prefer that mode of study. Or has this changed everything? In which case there are many changes to promotion, learning, facilities, technology, marketing and leadership practices to be made for the new way of working.

The dominant thinking appears to be that the future is hybrid. If we can offer all learning and working in both physical and virtual modes, why wouldn’t we? If we can see some return of onshore international students, by those who preference us over others when our borders eventually open, why wouldn’t we take them? If we can continue to persuade domestic students that our campuses are vibrant and social, and offer the best experience at a premium price, why wouldn’t we?

But if we can also mature our complementary and hybrid way of operating online alongside those campus experiences, how much bigger would our markets be? How much better would the experiences of diverse students be? And how much could we build on how our staff capability and systems have developed?

A hybrid way of working would see us making a long term and sustainable switch to learning, research, events, engagement with students, staff, partners, and multiple stakeholders, available both on vibrant campuses and through engaging virtual delivery channels. There is huge opportunity to grow the hybrid university of the future. It needs a strategy, leadership and resources to make a hybrid vision real. 

Rather than lamenting and protesting that the cheese has been moved from our old ways of doing things, to which we were so comfortable with and accustomed, we might start to find ways out of this maze into new business models. A hybrid way of studying, working and collaborating might make new university business models possible and preferable. After all, it is what many other sectors and services have embraced already.

And it is what some of our pioneers in universities had been better prepared for than others. This was clear in the message Dr David Kellermann of the UNSW Engineering program had to share with us on a HEDx podcast last week. He applauds the opportunity in front of us for hybrid universities and sees benefits for our students and staff. He believes a key thing that is missing is vision and leadership. It has to start there.

Martin Betts is Emeritus Professor at Griffith University and founder of HEDx.

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