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What role will technology companies play in a future higher education system? – opinion

There is much evidence to support the view that the future of work is changing rapidly. 

The accelerating decay in the value of acquired knowledge and experience is behind much of the increasing drive and need for lifelong learning. 

And with numbers of applicants for traditional postgraduate award programs falling, there is plentiful evidence that lifelong learning is about more than giving graduating recent school leavers, an opportunity to do a master's degree, in fully face-to-face mode on a university campus.

Beyond a call for increased funding for sovereign research, lifelong learning was a common factor in submissions to the Universities Accord.

The panel has now submitted their interim report to Minister Jason Clare. We might expect to see lifelong learning feature prominently when it is released.

But what role, if any, will we see for technology companies?

The consultation process around the Accord discussion paper, issued in February, saw more than 300 submissions.  They included thoughts from most of the 40+ universities and each university grouping. 

These inevitably gave a perspective from the providers’ current positions.  Submissions from student and staff unions, and groups of discipline leaders and professions, were also inevitably shaped by the needs of their current place in the eco-system.

These are likely to be responded to in the interim report which after all seeks to develop an Accord across the sector and between it and government.

What is less certain is whether the report will feature lessons from other sectors that our higher education system might learn from.

As we tick over the EOFY, there has been a rise, after a shaky post-pandemic period, in the value of global technology stocks.

This reflects how recent developments in technology generally, and generative AI in particular, have caught investors' and multiple sector business leaders’ attention. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find a new business venture not powered by AI right now, whatever the sector.

This has added to what was already a force for disruption and transformation in the economy, and in workforce and customer service expectations. 

The use of technology in hybrid environments is undoubtedly the way of the future in all sectors. The way this will guide our rethinking of where the higher education sector is heading remains high on the agenda that comes out of the Accord process at its interim stage.

The technology sector undoubtedly has much to contribute to how we might all conceive of that despite few submissions coming directly from technology companies.

Other sectors are rapidly coming to terms with how technology allows business models to transform, to allow personalised services to be delivered at scale. 

In the best situations, this is involving partnerships between sector providers and technology companies and specialists. There is a business climate of unleashed creativity and new ways of doing things enabled by digital fluency with technology.  

The need for checks and balances in governance is being partly met by stronger partnerships and dialogue between Big Tech companies, specialist technology providers, and core sector service providers.

This is occurring across finance, healthcare, retail, entertainment, and many other sectors.

There is mounting evidence of the same shift happening in higher education. The emergence of a growing EdTech sector, from K-12 through to HE, is creating much of the dynamism in student experience, student support and learning innovation. 

It is also allowing support to areas of research infrastructure and research collaboration. We are all seeking ways of this being possible with the obvious constraints and concerns around authentic assessment and academic and research integrity.

The focus of BigTech providers to higher education has progressed and matured from being one of a product and service supplier to a partner, co-investor and collaborative innovator. 

Big tech companies are themselves entering the market for skills development and lifelong learning through industry and skills certification and in the areas of micro-credentials. And they are going further in entering new partnerships to lifelong learning ventures both in the design and delivery of digital skills programs and aligning and integrating their own certificates with award offerings of universities and other higher education providers.

A great example of this lies in the venture of the Institute of Applied Technology Digital in NSW. 

This collaboration between two well-established universities in UTS and Macquarie, with TAFE NSW and Microsoft as the founding Industry partner, was formed from the Shergold-Gonski review of the NSW VET Sector.

This partnership recognises that to meaningfully address skills gaps across sectors, government, education and industry must work together.

Collectively these partners have stepped up to create curricula from the ground up to provide new digital skills training under a new model.

This form of multi-sector dialogue and partnership has much to offer higher education. 

A strong EdTech sector provides a means for Australian higher education providers to have high-quality online delivery systems and student experience and support.

Doing so with an understanding of the needs and context of an Australian environment has advantages for institutions, staff, and students. But there is a great rate and extent of change and advancement in all areas of technology and how it is being applied, adopted, governed, and used for new business models and creative solutions in all sectors globally.

This requires our sector to have an eye on, and in accord with, global advances in technology partnerships.

Global technology companies are key co-investors and partners with local EdTech providers and innovative start-ups. But they are increasingly key partners with, rather than simply suppliers to, all Australian higher education providers.

This is vital if our student and staff experiences and support are to keep pace with advances in the needs of lifelong learners and their experience expectations.  They are also key partners to us to ensure a continuous insight into governance issues and our understanding of changes in the future of work.

We are delighted that Microsoft and HEDx are partnering together, along with other technology providers and so many sector leaders, in a conference about the future of Australian higher education on July 20th in Sydney.

We had the chance to discuss this landscape for technology partnerships and the role that technology companies will play in the sector in a recent episode of the HEDx podcast you can access here.

Martin Betts, Co-Founder of HEDx.

Tiffany Wright, Microsoft Australia.

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