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And the answer to the million dollar question is...

Author: Martin Betts | As seen in Campus Review

The current time is a curious mix of short-term, mid-pandemic adjustments that will be temporary, and long-term seismic shifts that will change the game forever. The million-dollar question is knowing which is which.

The speculation has been widespread during the last 12 months of how there is no going back, what is the new normal, and how practices in living, working, travelling and employment have changed forever.

In terms of how we will live, will we really see the death of the city centre apartment, the rebirth of the old suburbs, the reuniting of families, and will tree changes and sea changes that are seeing regional house price rises out of step with those in the cities that are being deserted mean our tendency to congregate in cities is now over? Some of the forecasts may be overstated.  But which ones are and which ones aren’t?

Changes in working practices are widespread right now. But us all working from home for good, or suddenly gravitating to new suburban hubs, and CBDs being deserted forever is already being contradicted by weekday peak hour trip levels back to more than 100 per cent in some places. We don’t appear to be that keen on public transport yet, but parking costs and inconvenience will kick-in again, won’t they?

But will we unlearn the ability to hold virtual meetings, embrace technology, and work remotely, for at least part of the week, as a by-product of the biggest global learning exercise in a generation. And will our move to use digital platforms and technology to buy more and more of our products and services online be something we ever stop? I doubt it.

Which of all of these phenomena will endure strongest and longest? That is the million-dollar question that has the greatest impact on who the short-term winners and losers are by sector, geography and people. But who will gain long-term positions of advantage? Sure, aviation and international tourism is in a hopeless mess right now, but will we all make international trips again, once travel is safe and borders are open? I know I will.

The improvement in the prospects of online and digital services, and of technology generally, appears to be more of an acceleration of a trend that was happening anyway rather than a temporary blip. The many new products and services in the world of technology, which we have all grasped and learnt skills in, are unlikely to be forgotten or foregone easily.

So, what does all of that mean to universities and education? We are likely to need more of it, given an increasing focus on seeking and securing jobs. But will all of our new living, working, travelling and employing practices endure? Will it mean the current pattern of students and staff choosing our current universities and their offerings, in our home-working paradigm, with a partial relocation to suburbs and regions, be the dominant change to our universities’ futures?

Or will the digital disruption in life practices generally lead to digital transformation in university business models? This really is the million-dollar question for every vice-chancellor and their leadership team in any Australian university right now. I sense most of them are thinking about, hoping for, agitating toward, and betting, on a gradual return to the old ways.

The financial hit has been hard, but we survived it, right? The students are still enrolled and in the short-term domestic demand has been maintained, or even grown. Even international students have stuck with us, if only online.

It is easy, tempting, and less disruptive to go with the answer that the old ways will come back and we should just wait. All we need is to tweak the campus plans, increase the external engagement for some new revenue streams and to increase job prospects for graduates. We had digital learning programs underway anyway. Let’s just ramp them up a bit. And should we concentrate now on bedding down the organisational changes we made last year when we stripped out staff, parts of the structure, and some of the lower performing teaching programs and research?

But what if the old ways are not coming back? What if the level of this seismic shock is such that the initial tremors have subsided but the tsunami is yet to hit? I believe that we will settle back to some of the old ways of living, travelling and working that were prevalent at the start of 2020.

But I believe that student expectations, digital capabilities, interest from outside parties, and the expectations of government and the public are that transformational change and lasting disruption of our universities is imminent and irreversible. We need to rethink the model. Even the Prime Minister says so.

When I posed the question to one of our VCs in the HEDx podcast last week, of whether short-term regional relocation practices, or long-term digital disruption, were the dominant strategic issues facing the sector at present, she answered that this is the biggest question of all. I think she is right. She ventured that it might be too early to know the answer for sure. That might be right too, but I’m not sure we can afford to wait.

In Australia, my sense is that 39 universities appear to be betting their futures on black right now. The roulette ball will soon settle. What happens to all of them if it comes up red? I would be putting a lot of plans in place, and getting help from outside of the box for an outcome based on disruption.

This is at odds with the groupthink. But, remember what happened when everyone in the sector bet on a Shorten Labor government getting in?