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The student voice has spoken: and our response is…

Author: Martin Betts | As seen in Campus Review

The conversations about higher education were never more listened to, or diverse. But what do we hear, what sense do we make of it, and how do we respond?
What I heard most clearly last week was the student voice. It is not often QILT data makes headlines. Student satisfaction survey data often show little change between universities.

The 2020 student experience was different. When student satisfaction levels fall to 50 per cent, and student engagement 30 per cent, we have a problem. The feedback is unsurprising with such a rapid move to fully online learning. But the fact is student expectations of interaction were not met. Those in urban centres, with high levels of lockdown, fared worst. As did those with less prior remote learning or online experience.

We can pride ourselves on how quickly we transitioned fully online. But we can’t kid ourselves that most students were happy. Will as many students continue to invest in the experiences we provide? Or will they be open to alternatives?
Partial returns to campus, and some face-to-face teaching might help. But this level of student dissatisfaction and disengagement is game changing. It is a level of customer experience feedback that foreshadows disruption.

The voice of government is consistent. Empathy, or sympathy, with the sector is low. Government’s focus on business and employers’ needs, in graduates and research, is growing. Student data has generated a “must do better” stance.
This is not a renewed commitment to students’ interests. It is frustration that universities are not responding in the way government wants. The call for change and new business models, by our primary funder, just got louder.

Our voice, as university leaders, is inconsistent with those of students and government. We are yet to see many responses to the QILT data. My sense is most will wait for better news. The stance most are taking is that business as usual will return.

But are we taking core business customers for granted? Others won’t. Maintaining the status quo can be risky, as many other sectors have learnt. Ask newspapers, taxis, hotels, video stores and record shops.

Universities largely support government calls for job ready graduates and research commercialisation, but only with additional resources. Our voice is diverging from what students, employers and the government are saying. They expect fewer resources, shorter courses, and lower prices.

This has the hallmarks of a sector not seeing disruption looming. Continued calls to prioritise international student returns are in contrast to government, business and public priorities for returning Australians and supporting tourism over education. These are signs of a sector not making its point, and not listening.

In this context, the appointment of Mark Scott as the next Sydney VC is eye-opening. He led migrating business models, adapting to digital disruption in supply and changes in customer expectations in demand in the face of government hostility and reduced funding.

When I posed a LinkedIn poll question of whether Mark Scott’s appointment was a sign of universities disrupting, a 60:40 majority said it was. Whether the 40 per cent who didn’t think the appointment is going far enough are professors not welcoming leadership from someone not of their own, or are those taking exception to what Scott did at the ABC or NSW public service, who knows?
They might think disruption isn’t needed or coming. There is enough evidence for me that something important is going on, even at our oldest university.
How do we all respond to this? It is a time when business continuity must address the student voice. This has to entail business model migration and work on strategy, leadership, customer experience, and academic and professional culture. It begins with transformation in how, who and where we teach, and treat student experience, to a point where we embrace new business models. It is an agenda for change, for the sector, for five years.

The pecking order of our universities has been stable. That might be about to change. The Go8 had established advantages of research funding and reputation. They have been only marginally impacted by under-performance by their stragglers, and outstanding progress by the 10-12 other institutions, who variously claim to be in the top 10.

But when Melbourne and Monash have the two biggest drops in student satisfaction surveys, and Sydney is the first of 39 universities to appoint someone without higher education experience as leader, this must signify some change is afoot. Listen to the Go8 student on episode 16 of HEDx and her concerns about where her money goes. She sounds unhappy funding research and staff she never sees.

Universities in the next band of 10-12, who aspire to Go8 research intensity, might be careful what they wish for. How will they stand out in the brave new world? Their students are a little happier. Their staff are buckling under the weight of research expectations, and pressure to become digital content producers. They might become stuck in the middle?

Regional universities have always been up against it in challenging for places in the top 20 rankings. But if rankings don’t count anymore, and the sector is disrupting on the basis of student experience, does that matter? Maybe this is the time for the regional universities to be distinctive.

They were remote learning pioneers, have accessible campuses delivering to more satisfied students in smaller classes, and do research focused on regional partnerships and community missions. They have the highest rates of graduate pay, employability, and most of the other things the government, students and employers want.

Whatever each university decides is its way forward, from the sense it makes from current dissonant voices, the overriding need will be for clear strategy, bold leadership and a focus on people, culture, experiences and partnerships.

These were some of the principles at the heart of the new Rising with the Regions strategy vice chancellor Helen Bartlett is launching at the University of the Sunshine Coast, and which she shared on last week’s HEDx podcast. And they are at the heart of the work we are now undertaking with a number of clients as HEDx in changing higher education for good.

What an opportunity universities have to transform higher education and do good for something so many others are talking about.


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