Universities in a post-COVID world

Theo Farrell discusses the digital transformation of the tertiary sector

Universities have been transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic and their purpose has never been more important, according to UOW’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education) Professor Theo Farrell.

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been felt far and wide. Across Australia and around the world, all aspects of the economy, society and daily life have been affected. The global economy has suffered the worst economic downturn in a century, causing over 150 million job losses.

For universities, the challenge has been profound. Our campuses are bustling places where people come together to discover and share knowledge. They are usually joyfully hectic at the start of each semester, as students flood in to return to study or to start the next exciting stage in their educational journey.

COVID-19 has changed all of that. This past semester, we delivered all of our courses and all our support services to students remotely through online tools and platforms.

While some practical classes, workshops and laboratory classes have now resumed on campus, we do not anticipate a full return to the face-to-face experience, including lectures to large groups, until a COVID-19 vaccine becomes generally available.

Regardless, more online learning and teaching will be the ‘new normal’ for universities in the post-COVID world. Digitalisation is one of the transformation priorities in UOW’s 2020-2025 Strategic Plan. It offers not only exciting new ways to create, collaborate and learn, but also more flexibility for students. At the same time, most students continue to highly value face-to-face interaction with teachers and peers, as well as the great variety of social activities that typically take place on campus. Thus, our ‘new normal’ will involve far more online teaching and resources that are blended with on-campus classes.

Online learning has been around for many years. However, we have not seen wholescale digital transformation of the higher education experience in the same way as other service sectors, such as retail and banking. This past semester, every teacher and student in Australian higher education has necessarily advanced their online knowledge, skill and experience. At UOW, we will build on this momentum to accelerate the blending of online tools and resources into all of our campus-based courses. Over time, we will increasingly blur the line between online and face-to-face, as we continue to incorporate new technologies and further enhance the digital literacy of all staff and students.

The purpose of universities remains unchanged – to engage in scholarship and scientific discovery, to be places of higher learning, and to bring benefits for local communities. With the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on the Australian economy, the role of universities has never been more important. The Treasurer of Australia recently noted that the falls in Gross Domestic Product and employment ‘are around twice as big’ as occurred in the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2007-2008. Over 10,000 jobs have been lost in the Illawarra alone. It is time for Australia to invest more in the research and development that will supercharge the innovation economy and create new high-skill jobs. Collaboration between industry and universities in Australia is the lowest in the OECD. Harnessing the research power of universities will be key to recovery and growth.

Just as important is the role of universities in preparing young people for high-skills work. In July, the Australian Productivity Commission produced a report on the long-term scarring caused by economic crises on the scale of the GFC and the COVID-19 pandemic. It found that while employment rates picked up in the decade that followed the GFC, young people found themselves trapped in low-aspiration jobs and struggled to climb the career ladder. Even before the pandemic, young people were facing a more uncertain future with career paths more volatile than any experienced by previous generations. New automation technologies – AI, big data and advanced robotics – are expected to transform the Australian economy in the coming decade, causing millions of job roles to change. In response, UOW is incorporating career development skills across the curriculum and rolling out a program to embed work-integrated learning across all our courses.

With a great many people left unemployed by COVID-19, there is also increased demand and urgency for universities to support the education needs of mature-age students. In response to a government initiative in May, UOW created a portfolio of over 20 higher education short courses, in subjects, ranging from business analytics to health leadership, designed to provide reskilling opportunities for those looking to improve their employment prospects. By July, we had received well over 1,000 applications and 350 people had commenced their studies. The demand for lifelong learning will continue to grow as people seek to upskill or reskill for job roles transformed by automation technologies.

For universities, there is no going back to the pre-COVID-19 world. Digital transformation is here to stay. This is great news for students as digital literacy is a key skill for future employability. Campus life will eventually return with all its vibrancy, only now it will be integrated with a rich online learning ecosystem.

Professor Theo Farrell

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education) UOW