By Dan Musson is CEO of the Australian Institute of Management
THE dramatic shifts and uncertainty in the Senate’s balance of power may make it more difficult for the federal government to pass its controversial deregulation reforms. But whatever happens, the need for change will remain real.
So too will the need for the right settings to ensure the quality of all education providers and to bring about a renewed focus on students. Debate on these issues must be rational – there is too much at stake for much-needed reform to be hijacked and ground to a halt by vested interests.
The reforms are the next step in the evolution of higher education in Australia. They will force the sector to shift its attention from institutions to students, which is a very promising development. But little has been said about the way they will affect other parts of the economy, in particular their impact on the way businesses approach the recruitment, training and development of their people.
Since the 1970s, employers have expressed concern that textbook business education hasn’t prepared students for the realities of the workforce. We are seeing a deluge of young people who have come out of university with critical thinking skills and a hankering for overseas travel, but who lack the skill set for entry-level jobs. As deregulation leads to greater competition in the sector students will no doubt question the value of any qualification that leaves them ill-equipped for work.
In the current debate it appears that outcomes has become the bandied about term for referring to how students should select university courses. In a sector known for using opaque language and political correctness – outcomes is an inoffensive catch-all term for students being employable and getting a job after study.
Semantics aside, the sector should call a spade a spade and fess up to the fact that students will be making a cost benefit decision that is better known as return on investment. A framework that until now has sat uncomfortably in institutions dependent on the public purse.
As we heard throughout the government’s higher education Senate inquiry, the influence of market concepts like return on investment and the pricing of courses are ruffling feathers. Rather than viewing the government’s reforms as a great undoing of socialist principles, the vested interests should view it as a step toward democratising higher education and putting students, as consumers, in control. A leaner, quality-focused, market-driven higher education sector will increase choice and value for students’ money.
Putting a competitive price on degrees is a positive first step for the sector to move toward delivering better value for students. Although commentators have wrung their hands about providers gouging students with $100,000 undergraduate degrees, they forget that it’s up to the student whether to sign up for the high-priced option or to seek out the $40,000 degree around the corner. Presumably pricey degrees won’t be big sellers when students can opt for high quality online diplomas that channel them toward a postgraduate degree for half the cost. Instead of fretting about securing a larger share of the public funding pie providers should shape the costs of courses to suit the market.
Fee deregulation is a welcome shift, repositioning the focus of higher education policy and funding from the institutions to the students and giving the sector the impetus to refocus its view of students as customers. Institutions and private providers will have to improve their communication with students to demonstrate the value of their offering. A lovely sandstone campus will no longer be enough of a return for students’ investment, particularly for those keen to join the globally competitive mobile job market.
On a more equal playing field, private providers will be able to deliver courses and compete with universities on efficiencies, putting pressure on costly overheads associated with entrenched bureaucracies in many institutions.
But hold on a moment. So much of this debate has focused on undergraduate courses and it is also important to recognise the benefits the reforms will have for the postgraduate sector. Postgraduate providers will now need to lift their game if they are going to make a compelling case for student ROI.
The traditional model of delivering postgraduate courses during semesters and in person, usually on a Wednesday evening between 6pm-9pm, hasn’t kept up with the busy connected work lives of today’s post-grad students. Students and their employers need greater flexibility. And so as a leader in the private education market AIM has evolved postgraduate education to better suit the world of work including a new Online MBA. This means allowing our students to start their courses any day of the year, so they can better manage busy periods at work, and take advantage of the quieter times too.
Now is a truly exciting period of change for the sector. From an outdated business model based on centuries-old traditions to a sector better able to grapple with changing technology, economic patterns and preferences of its customers. This isn’t about an ‘education revolution’ it is simply evolution. Like every other industry today, higher education is being dragged kicking and screaming toward customer-centricity.