A new tertiary education model has the potential to change education across the globe.
Australia's universities are at the cutting edge of research across diverse and highly specialised fields.
However, when it comes to reimagining their own future, these institutions are often accused of being slow to move with the times and risk averse.
Responding with caution is understandable for a community of well-qualified people with divergent views. And to be fair, thorough due diligence takes time.
But with widespread disruption to the higher education sector caused by COVID-19, every university has been pushed to deliver the best pathway towards a sustainable future.
Any doubt about the sector’s precarious position is confirmed by a quick glimpse at the numbers.
Collectively, Australian universities lost an estimated $1.8 billion in revenue last year compared to 2019. On the jobs front, more than 17,000 positions were shed.
As universities move to plug the large financial hole and deal with myriad other challenges, we will likely see teaching methods and models of delivery shift to fit our pandemic-fuelled and increasingly digital world.
However, those changes may well be superficial when compared with what is on its way: the so-called smart university.
The smart university model expects technology to sweep away some of the most rudimentary elements of higher education and usher in a flood of changes and innovations.
The smart university will offer a high degree of personalised learning and support and be responsive to a student’s circumstances outside of university life, such as their part- or full-time work, family or care responsibilities, and community commitments.
With courses being delivered largely as an online undertaking, students will be able to start a course at any time without the barriers of semester or trimester intake periods.
This also means students will be able sail through a semester’s content in half the time and a three-year degree in just two years. Some even call the smart university the ‘Netflix of the education landscape’, meaning users can consume as little or as much as they want in any sitting.
With no requirement to attend face-to-face classes, you might be thinking the smart university experience is devoid of contact with those in the university community.
However, the smart university will use advanced technology to connect students with others in the same situation, as well as with academic and support staff.
There are even likely to be virtual drop-in rooms where students can mingle, share ideas and socialise in a similar vein to the way they could in a traditional bricks-and-mortar campus environment.
And if you are worried about looming assessment due dates, relax.
The smart university will personalise experiences to such a degree that students will be able to submit assignments when they are ready academically and their personal circumstances allow them to do so. And it is likely the smart university will favour project-type assignments over essays, exams, tests and more traditionally styled assessments.
Critics will argue that no matter how good the technology, the smart university experience will remain inferior to a more traditional face-to-face education.
For example, how will students learn vital soft skills such as communication and teamwork if they are not interacting with real people in face-to-face classes?
The answer lies in the structure of degree programs.
There will be ramped-up and compulsory doses of workplace experience as part of every university course, including those without a direct vocational orientation.
One of the more alluring aspects of the smart university model is access to a much greater pool of academic talent. The virtual nature of a smart university and opportunities for remote work mean academic expertise can be sourced from around the globe, with no need for faculties to relocate to join the academic staff at an Australian university.
Some even believe the smart university will herald in a new beginning when it comes to international collaboration between institutions of higher learning. Shared intellectual property, curriculum and academic staff are all likely to be the fabric of the smart university.
As the smart university becomes embedded within the education landscape, distance will never be an impediment to studying at an Australian university.
The best students will flock to where the best smart university experience is on offer, triggering potentially mass migration of student places across state and international borders.
And while the smart university means there is a new opportunity to attract international students from across the globe (without them having to move out of their loungerooms), it also poses a new threat.
Our own domestic students will be able to bypass Australian universities and enrol in the best smart universities worldwide.
• Professor Gary Martin is chief executive officer of the Australian Institute of Management WA