by Mike Ewing
It is indeed my privilege to contribute to this GRLI conversation, following Julia Christensen Hughes, Hanna-Leena Pesonen and Ian Fenwick. The downside with going fourth is that these three luminaries have already used up all the good material! I will therefore give an Australian perspective, in an attempt to capture the diversity of our sector. Indeed, we must fight for global co-operation and against rising nationalism.
I am very fortunate to work for a University that has invested heavily in online and digital delivery for over a decade. For Deakin, the COVID-induced pivot to off-campus delivery was seamless, and for the most part, BAU. I will therefore not discuss what the ‘shift to online’ could mean for the future of higher education — as this too has already been done.
What has been more interesting to experience have been the myriad other adjustments and innovations in response to the virus/lockdown, many of which have resulted in unforeseen positive (and some negative) consequences.
International air travel bans have forced Deakin to quickly master virtual student mobility and work-integrated-learning. This is exciting and hopefully enduring. Even pre-COVID, the Swedes had coined a word for the shame that travellers are beginning to feel about flying: flygskam, (pronounced “fleeg-skahm”). EFMD may need to re-think the EQUIS internationalisation expectations too — in response to both COVID and the Greta-effect.
MS Teams and Zoom have proven to be wonderfully enabling technologies that have resulted in more focused and yet more inclusive meetings. I have run two whole-of-school Zoom meetings (with 300 odd participants in each) that exceeded all expectations, with questions answered both in real time and by follow-up. These days, I am having more one-on-one conversations with the President, my peers on the University Executive, and my own direct reports than I have ever had before. I have also connected (via Zoom) with more alumni than ever. Both the Faculty and University Executive groups have their own dedicated WhatsApp channels, which are being used for work but also to share jokes and memes as well as to connect on a more personal level than we do on MS Teams. And with meetings now occurring virtually, I am saving two hours per day in commuting, allowing me to exercise more, cook more, garden more, and paradoxically, be far more productive.
In outlining these unforeseen positive consequences, I recognise that I am immensely privileged; for an overwhelming majority, the experience has been far less positive. Some of these have been extensively reported on, including the terrible loss of life and loss of employment. But there are other more subtle consequences. Extending Ray Oldenburg’s notion of the Third Place, COVID-19 has resulted in the First Place (home) and Second Place (work) converging, and all physical Third Places being closed by the Government. This is unchartered territory from a sociological perspective, and will no doubt result in some cracks appearing. I also feel deeply for those who live alone, during these increasingly lonely and isolated times. Three more negative consequences to emerge:
Racism is alive in well in most if not all jurisdictions, and Australia is unfortunately no exception. Recent abhorrent incidents of racism against international students in Melbourne (and England) shocked the sector. Indeed, people of Chinese descent are being targeted worldwide due to their ethnicity — in a perverted form of retribution for the virus. That said, African students (and citizens) in China are complaining of being targeted too.
Education, that which I still romantically think of as a ‘public good’, has become Australia’s third biggest export industry (after iron ore and coal), and the largest in my home state of Victoria. This over-dependence on international students is not well-balanced; most of these students come from two countries. Nor is the degree mix balanced; Australian business schools graduate one third of all students and half of all international students. These unbalanced proportions have led to business schools being given the moniker of ‘cash cow’. But now that the proverbial pyramid is collapsing, who is to blame? Successive Governments for allowing this to occur and for consistently under-investing in higher education? University Councils for neither managing risk effectively nor insisting on income diversification? Either way, the post-COVID fall-out down under has been both spectacular and unprecedented. The University of Sydney estimates virus-related losses will approach A$500 million in 2020, while for the University of New South Wales, the projected loss of A$600 million represents one-quarter of its annual income. With 2021 losses projected to far exceed those in 2020, further structural change and job losses are almost inevitable.
Eroding of competitive advantage (or levelling of the playing field?)
From a purely selfish (Deakin) perspective, I am both impressed and slightly threatened by the speed and relative ‘ease’ with which other Australian universities have transitioned from close-to-zero online presence to 100 percent online in a matter of just weeks. While I would like to believe that remote emergency teaching is not the same as high calibre online education, this does still raise at least three questions: (1) Will these recently ‘digitally re-born’ schools push ahead online post-COVID, or will they return to their ‘old ways’? I suspect this is rhetorical. (2) How does Deakin — which has always prided itself on its premium online resources — make the most of this (fast disappearing?) comparative advantage and keep advancing our premium offer forward? (3) With hindsight, in our drive to innovate and be first-to-market, have we over-invested (and over-engineered) and become unintentionally ‘too good’? Indeed, when it comes to online delivery, how good is ‘good enough’ — particularly with all the off-the-shelf platforms and systems available to late adopters today?
Where to from here for?
I’ve almost completed this post without the obligatory cliché, but we simply cannot waste this crisis. There have to be some positive and permanent improvements to the way in which we operate when we get to what Scott Morrison calls ‘the other side’ of the pandemic. Being a multi-campus University, I foresee more Zoom meetings, more working from home, and less high carbon-emission, high opportunity cost inter-campus travel. Living in the country’s most traffic-congested city, this should also have other positive health and wellbeing benefits too. I also foresee us becoming more focused, less growth-obsessed and more balanced. Hopefully we will see a leaner ‘centre’, lower admin:faculty ratio and a more ‘back-to-basics’ (i.e. teaching and research excellence) mindset, coupled with a stronger commitment to sustainability in every sense of the word. From a Thunbergian perspective, I also hope to see significant reductions in non-essential air travel going forward, something which GRLI and the major accreditation bodies will need to consider too.
What I hope does not happen
Less Government-funding for true university education and more for short-term courses and vocational training. A reduction in social license and/or continued absence of good policy could see Australian universities become smaller, poorer, domestic-oriented training places with more transactional obligations. We could also end up with more of the wrong type of regulation. Australia’s risk-averse boardrooms are already falling short when it comes to innovation, according to the AICD. The same might be said of University Councils.
“In the midst of winter, I found there was, an invincible summer” (Albert Camus)