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How do we fulfil great expectations? opinion

One of the biggest motivations for many that work in higher education is observing and supporting its potential to transform lives. 

For those first in family to experience higher education, it opens up new opportunities, and futures. It creates loyalty to the experience and the sector as a whole that motivates us to spread the word and share the message. Internationally, seeing countries' health status and economies prosper through the positive aspects of obtaining an education is very satisfying, and we know this is integral to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. 

For many, the positive aspects of obtaining an education creates a desire to want to give back. This phenomenon is one on which alumni engagement and development programs broadly rely. It creates support and aspiration among relations of graduates that means higher education’s reach can transform families.

There is a growing focus on widening participation in higher education and we know society into the future will require new skills. We seek to build aspiration in more individuals who do not already have access to such a family environment. Building new aspiration is critical to getting new groups and people into our universities and making more equitable access to their benefits. The idea that we are currently approaching a peak in people aspiring to better themselves, or of disrupted lifelong learners seeking to ensure their knowledge and skills are up to date and fit for purpose, contrasts with evidence of continued growth. UK universities, in the current enrolment period, are paying students to defer or decline offers as they struggle to meet surges in demand.

Some of the means we use to build aspiration is to raise expectations of what the higher education experience will be, what it will lead to, and what benefits it will bring. This is key to how we present our brands and how we market our institutions, courses, experiences and outcomes. Some of us do this with a focus on exclusivity and excellence. Others do so more through a focus on equity and opportunity. We like to think of this as excellence without elitism but, whichever approach they take, universities must meet brand and marketing promises. They seek to do so by fulfilling expectations through the experiences of staff and students and increasingly we know one size does not fit all. 

Current disruptions to working and family lives and university operations raise expectations further. Expectations have changed differentially across equity groups. When will we be free of lockdowns? When will we be able to travel? When will work practices be stable? When will classes return to and remain as face to face? These questions have different implications across levels of student poverty, digital access and family support.

And our experiences have been compromised. Staff experiences of working remotely, and with reduced certainty of future employment, have been compromised by organisational changes and uncertain long-term practices for home and campus working. Student experiences of learning have been denied campus social interactions many thrive on. The new online learning is not meeting long-term expectations of those providers for whom it was a rushed transition and a short-term fix, rather than an enduring transformation. The expectation shortfall differs for different student groups and their varying circumstances.

What we all need right now is compassion and understanding. The mental health crisis affecting our current students is real. And those who join us next year, after two almost fully interrupted school years, will have even greater needs. And what will international onshore students have, when they eventually return to us, by way of needs and expectations of experiences? How do we find out the needs and desired experiences of domestic and international online students? What aspirations and expectations should we build for them?

We need more clarity on what has been the impact on all of these expectations and experiences. And we need, in particular, to delve into how this plays out with online education in its current transitory state and for the next phase transformations by universities and other providers that will emerge to meet the growing demand for diversified learning experiences. There is opportunity for us to build new online experiences, to be emancipatory, particularly if we build aspirations, expectations and experiences appropriately and sensitively to variety in our student cohorts and their lived experiences.

This will require diverse providers to devise strategies and business models to reflect the new realities of learning anywhere and anytime and a greater desire for personalisation. The importance of quality in content, and in learning experiences through digital platforms, will both become critical. It will require us to think about our brand and marketing messages differently, and to undertake engagement with our communities, schools, employers and future students in new ways and with new messages. Universities need to focus on student experience and student success in relation to those new expectations and what we can reasonably expect to deliver as experiences in our new hybrid ways of operating. The future is not so much about the death of the campus, as it is the rebirth of new ways of imaging the physical and digital campus, and the support services we wrap around them – it can be a real opportunity for diversity, equity and inclusion.

For those institutions for whom the move to online was a new and rushed experience, it will need new innovative approaches to sustainable online and hybrid practices. These will involve new partnerships with technology companies and specialist service providers.

This will require different approaches to leadership and resources at all levels of our universities, and for innovative and supportive cultures to be shaped to match. The perfect combination in the make-up of a leader in this situation will include an understanding of the transformational purpose of what universities are for and why they are different. It will also require a strong sense of compassion for staff and empathy for students. And it will be well served by a strong focus on innovation and trying new ways of meeting new online and hybrid expectations, and a propensity to try them out, with new partners, for a variety of students.

The combination of these qualities is what it will take to fulfill great expectations.  It is a combination ably demonstrated in our HEDx podcast last week with Patricia Davidson as she nears the end of her first 90 days as the vice-chancellor at the University of Wollongong.

Professor Martin Betts is the co-founder of HEDx

Professor Patricia Davidson is vice-chancellor of the University of Wollongong

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