Vision, focus, and calculated risk-taking are needed to stand out in the university sector.
With the pandemic having exposed Australian universities’ financial dependency on international education, pressure is growing on those in the higher-education sector to reimagine their futures.
Some university chiefs will revisit merger talks, while others will downsize their physical footprint and lease underutilised space to third parties.
Some governing bodies and university executives will turn to more traditional diversification activities such as short-course delivery, executive education, and the commercialisation of intellectual property.
Others still will focus on tackling what many observers describe as a major missed opportunity: differentiation in a crowded market of sameness.
If you think Australia’s 37 public universities, spread over more than 200 campuses, can be differentiated by how they are structured and operate and what they offer, then you are wrong.
Many experts will tell you the majority of public universities are variations on a single theme: the comprehensive research university.
In basic terms, a comprehensive research university embraces teaching and research. It means students have the opportunity to study a wide range of disciplines across undergraduate and postgraduate levels, while research is conducted in many (but not necessarily all) of the same disciplines.
If you have any doubts about the uniformity of the university sector, a glance at the strategic plans of those in the higher-education sector will be instructive.
The purpose or vision statements of most Australian universities share striking resemblances, regardless of the institution’s geographic location, size, budgets, student numbers and age.
Most will mention world-class research and the production of work-ready or enterprising graduates. Some will reference engagements or partnerships with the community.
Drill down another layer to the courses on offer and the sameness shifts to another level.
All our 37 public universities have a form of business school, play in the teacher education space, and all (bar one) have a law school.
Most working in universities believe that institutional differentiation is a positive.
But achieving diversity is challenging because of a number of barriers including, for example, the fact the university title is reserved for institutions engaged in both teaching and at least some research. That makes it difficult for a university to qualify under the teaching-only principle.
Despite the many barriers, differentiation is a real possibility and an opportunity for universities to compete more effectively and avoid forced mergers.
There are opportunities, for example, for specialist universities.
Picture a university that focuses on science or the arts, but not both. And consider the possibility of an institution specialising in degrees in commerce or business with majors including professional accounting, accounting, economics, human resources and other related academic areas.
If issues of definition were resolved, there is also the chance of teaching-only universities, even though critics claim that research critically informs university teaching. And if there are teaching-only institutions, why not research-only ones, too?
There is also the prospect of an online-only university, which has a small physical footprint situated locally but enrols students virtually from around the globe.
Experts also point to the possibility of a postgraduate-only or graduate-school university for students with an undergraduate degree or equivalent work experience who wish to advance their qualifications.
And let’s not discount the possibility of an increased number of dual-sector universities that deliver both vocational qualifications (certificates, diplomas and advanced diplomas) and undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications.
There are even opportunities to kill off uniformity by differentiating on the basis of the student experience.
Consider, for example, the university that includes a one-year internship as part of every undergraduate qualification, a standard six-month study overseas for the global experience, or one that allows a three-year degree to be completed in two by making better use of universities’ generous holiday periods.
There is no question that differentiation requires vision, discipline and focus.
It also requires governing bodies and university executives to take calculated risks.
Done well, differentiation can play to an institution’s strength in a way that benefits everyone, including the students.
• Professor Gary Martin is chief executive at the Australian Institute of Management WA