The Business of Higher Education: Should Universities Change Their Approach?


Australia’s higher education sector is dealing with an increasing number of challenges. In addition to driving student success and improving job-readiness, institutions need to prove their value for money, competing against each other to attract students. They also need to manage increased budgetary pressures due to declining funds. It’s not surprising then that university leaders are looking at other industries to see how they are navigating similar issues.

To contribute to this debate, the fourth annual Blackboard Academic Leadership Forum, which gathers university leaders from across Australia and New Zealand just before the Teaching and Learning Conference, will discuss how technology innovation and alternative organisational models can help institutions face these and other economic challenges. In particular, they will explore one of the most controversial approaches: to survive and flourish, should institutions become more like business ventures, striving to be the best providers of the “university experience”? 

Some people strongly oppose the idea of considering education like a trading good—individuals engage in study principally animated by passion, and they shouldn’t be regarded as “buyers of knowledge.” However, it can’t be ignored that running an institution has financial ramifications, which need to be addressed with a businesslike mindset. Nowadays, Vice-Chancellors are considered more like CEOs as they oversee the multiplexes of the university experience. They are acutely aware of the need to adapt to meet the changing economic and environmental factors and students’ expectations. Just like businesses, this means havingmore attention to investments, costs and expenditures, exploring alternative revenue streams, and increasing the focus on customer (student) retention. 

Universities are not alone in this journey. They can use cutting-edge technology and analytics solutions specifically designed to provide a personalised student experience, improve academic effectiveness, and further drive efficiencies. For example, they can use AI to improve course accessibility and automatically provide content in alternative formats, enabling students to choose what best suits their learning styles. This would have been impossible a few years ago, but today, thanks to Curriculum Management Software, universities can easily manage the design, delivery and publication of education courses at any given moment. 

Western Sydney University, Blackboard’s partner for this year’s forum, is embracing new approaches to keep pace with the changing needs of its student population and is leveraging technology to adapt to new external challenges and become more agile.

“There is much to be gained from looking outside the higher-education sector for innovation,” said Professor Scott Holmes, Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Western Sydney University. “The major challenges in higher-education – competition, internationalisation, program diversification – are paralleled in business. We should share what we know.

“As a student-centred institution, Western uses technology to integrate academic and personal support at all stages of the student lifecycle. We support our students from enrolment enquiry through their degree to graduation – and, increasingly, into the workforce. Western was the first university to provide free digital textbooks for commencing university students. With the average cost of a text book being $100, our students receive up to $800 worth of value, and a signal that we are invested in their success.

“Our University delivers education to meet the expectations of students now and satisfy the needs of our graduates in the future. To create a successful future for themselves and their communities, our students will require a transdisciplinary set of skills that can be put to work in a variety of careers.  

“This year’s forum is pivotal to helping our entire sector stay ahead of the dynamic forces likely to disrupt higher education in the future.”

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