Striving for a point of difference

Universities in the higher education sector are under pressure to rethink their future as the pandemic reveals the financial reliance of Australian universities on international education.

Some college presidents will revisit the merger negotiations, while others will shrink their physical footprint and lease underutilized space to third parties.

Some governing bodies and university executives will look to more traditional diversification activities such as short-term offerings, management education, and commercialization of intellectual property.

Others focus on what many observers say they missed a big opportunity: tackling differentiation in a crowded market of identity.

If you think that 37 Australian public universities across more than 200 campuses can be distinguished by their structure, how they operate, and what they offer, you are wrong.

Many experts will tell you that the majority of public universities are a single theme variation: Comprehensive Research Universities.

Basically, a comprehensive research university incorporates education and research. This means that while research is done in many (but not all) of the same discipline, students have the opportunity to study a wide range of disciplines across undergraduate and graduate levels.

If you have any doubts about the unity of the university sector, a quick glance at the strategic plan for the higher education sector will help.

Most Australian universities’ purpose or vision statements share amazing similarities regardless of the institution’s geographic location, size, budget, number of students, or age.

Most people refer to world-class research and the development of ready-to-use or enterprising graduates. Some mention community engagement and partnerships.

Drilling down another layer into the offered course will move your identity to another level.

All 37 of our public universities are in the form of business schools, playing in teacher education spaces, and all (first bar) have a law school.

Most people working in college believe that institutional differentiation is positive.

However, achieving diversity is difficult due to many barriers, including the fact that university titles are reserved for institutions engaged in both education and at least some research, for example. Therefore, it is difficult for universities to qualify under the principle of education only.

Despite many barriers, discrimination is a viable possibility and opportunity for universities to compete more effectively and avoid forced mergers.

For example, colleges have opportunities.

Imagine a university that focuses on science or art, but not both. Then consider the potential of an institution that specializes in commerce or business degrees with majors, including specialized accounting, accounting, economics, human resources and other related disciplines.

Even if critics argue that research critically informs college education once the definition problem is resolved, it could be an education-only college. And if there is an education-only institution, isn’t there a research-only institution?

There is also an online-only university outlook. The university has a local physical footprint, but virtually enrolls students from all over the world.

Experts also point out the possibility of a graduate-only or graduate-only university for students with an undergraduate degree or equivalent work experience who want to improve their qualifications.

And the potential for an increasing number of dual-sector universities offering both professional qualifications (certificates, diplomas, advanced diplomas) and undergraduate and graduate qualifications should not be underestimated.

There is even an opportunity to break evenness by differentiating based on the student’s experience.

For example, a university that includes a one-year internship as part of all undergraduate qualifications, a standard six-month study abroad program for global experience, or a two-year completion by improving the degree. Think of a university that can do it. Use of the university’s generous vacation period.

There is no doubt that differentiation requires vision, discipline and concentration.

Also, governing bodies and university executives need to take calculated risks.

Hopefully, discrimination can harness the strengths of an institution in a way that benefits everyone, including students.

• Professor Gary Martin is Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Institute of Management WA.

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