The Opportunities and Challenges Facing the Higher Education Sector in 2021

Posted: 25/02/2021

by: Ian Thomson

With quarter one of 2021 coming to an end, it provides a good opportunity to look at what we now know and have learned in this interesting new time of Higher Education to ensure that we are prepared for the opportunities and challenges that face us in 2021 and beyond.

What do we know so far?

The international position looks bleak, with border closures making the arrival of new students almost impossible. The UK and Canada continue to admit students, and the Biden administration in the US is planning to increase its intake dramatically. Some students remain committed to their Australian offers and are starting online, but not enough.

Although not as much as initially predicted, university budgets have been severely impacted, but the worst is yet to come. Research, largely topped up by international student fees, is in real trouble despite the government’s additional $1 billion. Voluntary redundancies and reduced capital expenditure have helped budget positions but haven’t delivered any process efficiencies, leaving staff to do more with less.

Domestic demand is strong with a significant increase in applications, but with no material change in CSP funding caps, many increased enrolments will be unfunded. In many cases, student fees have changed, placing a greater financial burden on students and delivering the perverse incentive for universities who plan to over-enrol on their CSP cap to do so in business, arts and law.

Where to now?

It seems to me that there are potentially four types of leadership teams across the sector.

The optimists

The optimists have cut costs, made short-term decisions and believe it will work out in the end with vaccines saving the international sector. They have a degree of faith that the government will step in at some point and save the sector – or their institution at least. The old normal will be returned.

The pessimists

The pessimists continue to cut costs, don’t expect international students to return on mass for a decade, believe research will be decimated for even longer, and have bunkered down in survival mode.

We know from history across many sectors that both of these views will be ineffective. Cost-cutting without system improvements is generally unsustainable, and hope in a government saviour seems somewhat unlikely at the moment, especially given the current challenging relationships between Chancellors, Vice-Chancellors, Universities Australia and the Morrison Government.

The pragmatic realists

They have a realistic view of international enrolment and research activity that will see them improve over time. They have also cut costs but are now looking to create operational efficiencies, process improvements and system upgrades that deliver long-term benefits by locking in the people savings while providing revenue growth opportunities.

The pragmatic futurists

They are doing everything that the pragmatic realist is doing but are also taking time to plan a better future. Times of pain and crisis, whether personal or institutional, offer an opportunity to stop and reflect. And for many, this begs the question of what should my university look like in 10 years? Have I defined what we stand for? How will it be sustainable?

How will we deliver it?

The Dawkin’s reforms delivered a unified national system and accepted only one idea of a university, making it the national standard. In the end, all Australian universities have become generalist, leaving most small-scale specialist teaching to private HEPs.

The Bradley Review opened universities to a much larger portion of the population and enshrined funding and quality models. But the university model didn’t move away from standard generalist institutions; they just became larger and more controlled by a single standard.

Is it now time for another change?

Operational efficiencies that embed team savings and can drive institutional income.

  • Admissions, enrolment and onboarding – Have you got the right processes and systems to maximise your intake? Are you giving timely and accurate information, nurturing the applicant, ensuring action at all conversion points?
  • Retention & progression – Are you losing students unnecessarily, have you got in place the right data collection, review and intervention programs?
  • Learning & teaching – You probably have great academics and great content but are you maximising student experience, retention and attraction through the flexibility of timetabling, teaching periods, assessment and study loads, feedback and support availability?
  • Administration and bureaucracy – It used to be that great complexity was worn as a badge of honour (this is why we still laugh at ‘Yes, Minister’ and ‘Utopia’). How simple is it for a student to deal with your university? Mobile banking should be your target –necessary complexity behind the scenes, but great simplicity for the user.

Want to talk through your opportunities and challenges? Feel free to contact me on 0477 336 424 or