Author: David Granzow, Director ANZ Partnerships at FutureLearn
The annual Universities Australia Conference was held in late February in Canberra at the National Convention Centre with attendees from the higher education and government sectors including senior representatives. The overarching 2020 theme of the conference was “Education Changes Lives” with a focus on how education is a transformative force across communities, nations and individuals.
The conference attracts circa 1,000 attendees annually with over 65 high profile speakers from the Minister for Education, The Hon Dan Tehan MP, through to international speakers giving their perspectives on how education is changing lives.
To kick of the conference this year, there was a fantastic keynote by Professor Justin Wolfers, an Australian born Economics and Public Policy professor from the University of Michigan.
In his keynote, he demonstrated examples of short-term and longer-term economic impacts and how that, even with the immediate issues that Australia is facing, there might be a silver lining in the longer-term economic outlook for education. Additionally, he reflected on where he saw gaps in policy and economics and how to enable better decision making in these areas by bringing more academics into politics.
As expected from the keynotes and the Minister for Education’s address to the industry based on the recent events in Australia, from bushfires through to the global outbreak of Coronavirus, there was a lot of focus on the impact of these events on the Australian education sector. Not only did these themes come through in the speeches and presentations, but during most interactions and conversations heard throughout the event.
The main short-term issue on everyone’s mind was how to address the more than 100,000 Chinese students impacted by the Coronavirus and the travel bans imposed by the Australian Government.
Most of the universities seemed to be scrambling to implement short-term strategies to provide Chinese students with study options whether deferral into semester two or online delivery options into China, to keep the students engaged until they could arrive on shore.
Regardless of the proposed solutions there seemed to be no consistency between institutions and in most cases the uptake by the impacted students were low between 10 – 25%. Overall, it demonstrated that there was no industry standard approach nor commitment from the government on funding initiatives that would support the industry impacted by these events in the short-term.
Beyond the main topics being raised, the conference covered sessions from “improving student experience” to “building partnerships post Brexit” focusing on how a free trade agreement between the UK and Australia could foster collaboration in research and innovation.
Of all the sessions, there were however a few standouts and in particular “University leadership in a changing world” with Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town delivered an inspiring address on her philosophy of leadership which received tremendous feedback. Also, the Chasers, Craig Reucassel keynote “On principle, pranks, passion and peer-review” where he posed questions such as “Can research be made relatable and visual?” for which he then demonstrated some comical examples of rubbish being measured in elephants.
If you would like to get a greater understanding of the Australian Higher Education industry, including its key challenges and opportunities, the Universities Australia conference is an annual event that you should attend. The conference delivers not only fantastic speakers and panel discussions but attracts the key decision makers in the industry.
Additionally, it also highlighted that there are long-term opportunities in the Australian higher education sector for those that can meet the demands of students in a global economy and be agile in response to crises as they arise. It was also a great opportunity to connect and discuss partnership opportunities across the region.
Looking forward to 2021!