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The inclusive, entrepreneurial and transformational university

Universities are standing at a crossroads of tradition and innovation. Australian and British institutions alike are pillars of academic excellence, each navigating through their unique heritage and the choppy waters of contemporary government policies. As Australia embarks on a journey towards broadening participation and fostering equity through its Universities Accord, the UK finds itself at a policy impasse, grappling with the sustainability of its tuition fee system amid contentious debates over student numbers and levelling up reality.

Yet, regardless of these distinct policy climates, there is a universal thrust towards embracing the digital age—a transformation that demands not just technological adoption but a reshaping of partnerships and skills agenda. Amidst these diverse environments, there is a notable divergence in how leaders are embracing digital strategies and partnerships. This inconsistency persists even as the broader societal and economic forces seem to steer us inexorably towards a far more interconnected, digital future.

Operating within both the Australian and UK contexts are numerous global tech firms and a plethora of EdTech providers, among which Online Education Services (OES) stands out for its specialization in advancing digital delivery through university collaborations. OES itself is the progeny of a joint initiative between Swinburne University and SEEK. Swinburne serves as a paradigm of the technical university archetype prevalent, known for its robust commitment to digital innovation and forging alliances with the corporate world. These institutions typically sprout from industrially rich regions with working-class roots, carrying a torch for inclusivity and access to education for all.

Aston University in the UK has a very similar pedigree and has just launched a new 2030 strategy. It arose from extensive engagement with regional and global stakeholders in the local context which has led to an awakening of its organisational memory. The extensive consultation process and period that generated that strategy surfaced three power words to describe what Aston could be in 2030. Outlined in the recently unveiled “Strategy for a Changing World,” the principles of inclusivity, entrepreneurship and socio-economic transformation are being embraced as the guiding institutional “North Star” for Aston University, its community, and its collaborative partners.

Aston’s strategy, “Aston 2030,” encapsulates the institution’s vision for the future. This strategy, inspired by extensive consultations and stakeholder engagement, aims to future-proof the university in a rapidly changing world. The strategy, focused on future-readiness, anchors on technology partnerships, drawing from its leader’s experience at Swinburne and RMIT, and similar tech-centric institutions. Now unfolding where the first Industrial Revolution began, it reorients the institution towards Industry 4.0, centering on digital technologies and innovation.

The strategy is robustly supported by alliances with major tech corporations like Amazon, Microsoft, Capgemini, and Adobe, with each partnership reflecting the university’s strategic focus encapsulated by those three words: inclusive, entrepreneurial and transformational.

An exemplar of these international tech collaborations is the Adobe Creative Campus for Midlands initiative. Sponsored Adobe Chair in digital literacy, student-led digital innovation hub and engagement with the new Digital Futures Institute are all part of the Adobe creative campus strategy, which seeks to promote digital literacy among all students and support digital innovation in the wider university activity. One of the strongest features of partnerships with global tech companies arises from access to their own wider networks of corporate partners. Using tech company partnerships as a route to wider inclusion in this way is also how some of the three different elements of the strategy intersect and augment institutional outcomes.

Aston’s strategic outcomes are gauged using innovative benchmarks beyond the traditional rankings. This includes clear measures of socio-economic impact, such as  the UK’s Social Mobility Index, which assesses the extent of social advancement achieved by an institution’s graduates, including their demographic shifts. This index integrates metrics of access, progression, and graduate results across all study modes, resonating with the university’s commitment to inclusivity and transformation. Aston’s approach was vindicated as it secured 2nd place in the 2023 national rankings. The execution and evaluation of the new strategy prioritise these outcome-driven and purpose-oriented metrics over the conventional yardsticks of academic reputation, research performance, or subjective assessments by peers and collaborators.

A strategy centred on such a distinct purpose necessitates support systems tailored to prioritise this aim, especially in facets like digital skills and employability skills for a rapidly changing world of work. While the corporate world shifts uniformly towards digital models, universities vary in their adoption of Education 4.0. As a trailblazer in this area, Aston is aligning its objectives, operational processes, and external alliances with this digital-first approach.

This strategy takes physical shape in the form of the Birmingham innovation precinct adjacent to Aston’s campuses, where chance encounters among students, staff, and partners are cultivated on a foundation of tech innovation and strategic partnerships, effectively blurring the boundaries between organisational, digital, strategic, and physical spaces.

Aston’s adoption of a university-wide AI platform, complemented by an AI-driven creative campus infrastructure established through strategic partnerships, is a testament to the university’s commitment to digital innovation. This integration exemplifies how some universities are fully leveraging technology and partnerships to foster inclusivity and drive transformation. Aston is not merely adapting to the advent of AI and technology but is proactively applying these tools to achieve targeted social impact, embedding this pursuit at the heart of its institutional identity.

Recognizing such a purpose, international cooperation, particularly with entities in the US, Asia and beyond, emerges as a vital channel for mutual learning. The goal is to establish overseas innovation centres and hubs, a concept that resonates with the prospects for numerous Australian universities. As work dynamics evolve, it’s crucial that students gain exposure to global industry practices in the most successful innovation economies as well as in emerging markets. While the pathways to pursue such exposure are available, it requires leaders who not only align with the strategic ethos of the institution but also bring a commercial acuity to technology partnerships. Such bold leadership must be accompanied by tangible metrics of socio-economic impact and transformation to truly realise the growth in skills through equity as advocated by the Australian Universities Accord.

First published in Campus Review on 22nd November 2023.

Professor Martin Betts, Founder of HEDx

Sue Kokonis, Chief Academic Officer, OES

Professor Aleks Subic, Vice Chancellor and Chief Executive of Aston University, UK