The world beyond 2015

Challenges facing higher education institutions

Ms Stephanie Bryant, University of Adelaide, Australia
Posted on 17/10/2013

The landscape is changing. Higher education is being reshaped by globalisation and the digital revolution. There are growing pressures related to declining sources of income and rising costs. There is heightened competition for share of the global student market. Institutions are seeing a lasting effect from the global financial crisis impacting both enrolment numbers and philanthropy, and students have increasing demands and expectations of their educational experience. 

Prospective students are becoming more consumer-orientated and making decisions about education accordingly. University rankings will increasingly have more influence on positioning institutions in the international market, and graduate career-readiness is a growing student concern.

Students are looking for access to services and education across new technologies and more flexible delivery options. In order to be competitive and to meet these expectations, universities will need to invest in expensive facilities and infrastructure.

Recruitment of international Higher Degree by Research (HDR) students is also of great importance to research intensive universities. The ability to attract and retain high calibre, front-rank students (the next generation of research leaders) both nationally and internationally in the increasingly competitive higher education environment is paramount to help drive globally important research agendas.

Just as competition for student recruitment is increasing around the world, so too is the competition for talented staff. National performance assessments, such as the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) in the United Kingdom and the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) initiative locally, have now become entrenched. This has resulted in rapidly increasing demand for a relatively small pool of talented researchers, sought after due to their good performance across these measures.

Additionally, due to the high cost of research infrastructure, it is becoming vitally important for universities to develop partnerships that bring together research teams of equal strength, across university, government and business sectors globally. Going forward, the development of deeper, genuinely collaborative relationships will become more crucial for those universities wanting to be successful on the global stage as much of the equipment required in research is so costly that purchase through consortia and networks will be the only way to function at optimum levels.

Ultimately, a university’s ability to differentiate itself in market; recruit a diverse student body; attract and retain staff of international distinction; secure multifaceted partnerships and generate philanthropic support will be key to surviving the challenges the sector faces. 

Major challenges facing the University of Adelaide

In addition to the challenges the University of Adelaide faces on a global scale as an international higher education institution, there are national and local issues affecting the way we are planning for our future relevance and sustainability.

In 2012, the Australian Government implemented its plan for universal student access, demand-driven funding and greater levels of university accountability. The most significant aspect of these government reforms was the uncapping of undergraduate student places, enabling unrestricted student access to government funded places (provided basic eligibility requirements were met). This has heightened competition for students nationally and locally between universities and emerging international providers, public and for-profit— all competing for the Australian undergraduate student pool.

Accountability has always been an important consideration for any institution in receipt of public funding however, since 2012 and the introduction of the Australian Government’s higher education reform program, there has been an increased expectation on universities to formally demonstrate their value as a return on the public’s investment. The government introduced the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) which evaluates higher education providers against a new Higher Education Standards Framework. Increased intervention in university standards by government will continue through such mechanisms, yet the security of government funding continues to destabilise.

Greater levels of accountability for research performance have also been a focus of the Australian Government. Performance in research is of primary importance to the government, measuring research quality within Australia’s higher education institutions and providing rankings through the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) initiative. Funding will be more explicitly linked to performance and rankings. This is accelerating demand and greater competition for highly talented staff and students.

All universities in Australia have been tasked with substantially increasing the provision of places to low socio-economic status (low SES) students. Consequently there has been great concentration and investment directed towards engaging students from traditionally underrepresented cohorts, and providing access and pathways into higher education for all potential students. Additionally, to prevent social restriction, it is necessary to fund more scholarships to support students in need.

Locally, our central teaching hospital, the Royal Adelaide Hospital is being rebuilt on a new site further away from our campus. The consequence of this is that we must relocate our medical, nursing and dental schools so that the students have access to clinical practice facilities. This represents an enormous investment in development and new infrastructure.

Additionally, remaining competitive in the global student market continues to be a challenge. The combination of Australia’s strong economic performance resulting in a sharp increase in the value of the Australian dollar, coupled with the country’s reputation for restrictive visa rules (which have since been relaxed), has resulted in lower international student application numbers and a decline in income.

Addressing these challenges

The challenges ahead in higher education are great. However, the University of Adelaide is fortunate in its setting, historical heritage, robust financial health and its standing in the community. The 10-year strategic plan released at the end of 2012 will take the university to the eve of its 150th anniversary in 2024. The vision for the next 10 years is bold and designed to address the key issues such as rising costs and reduced funding, heightened competition for students and staff, intensified government intervention, increased relevance of performance measures and rankings, and an inability to sustain growth/rely on student expansion as a key budget driver.

We aim to overcome these challenges with a clear identity and sense of purpose. In order to retain and enhance our attraction to students in the increasingly competitive environment, we need to offer a compelling educational proposition. We are committing to an approach that will recapture the union of teaching and research and feature the small-group learning experience. We also plan to significantly invest in information technology (IT) and e-learning to enhance online learning resources and multimodal delivery formats. However we will never become an online-only course provider: the face-to-face campus experience is one of our great strengths. Technology will enrich what we traditionally deliver.

The university will increase its research capacity through recruiting more internationally high impact researchers aligned to its core research strengths and by doubling the number of full PhD scholarships offered. We will intensify collaboration between researchers and industry and have researchers coalesce around grand challenges such as food security, sustainable energy and abundant clean water.

We intend to build a number of new facilities: most urgently a new integrated medical, nursing and dental school. We will also need to undertake new development on campus and intensify the use of our existing spaces.

The University of Adelaide will reanimate its quest for the resources, facilities and scholarships it requires through creating new partnerships and generating more philanthropic support. But it will also review its investment policy, approach to cost containment and debt financing and other ways to fund its future aspirations. 

And so in this rapidly changing environment, the University of Adelaide will face its resource challenges with imagination and will continue to build relationships and invite support from government, industry, business, alumni and the community to share in advancing its future.

Tags: Higher education institutions, Australia, Competition, Funding, Change, Partnerships, Rankings, Recruitment

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