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Top 10 Trends in Higher Education in 2021

The past few years have brought heretofore unimaginable revolutions to almost every facet of the economy, politics and government and higher education. Technology advances at light speed. Market style competition and globalization have brought higher education services into a new era of competition. Meanwhile, concerns about the rise of Big Data and the effects of increasing political polarization in Australia and most of the rest of the Western democracies have created perceptions and problems that challenge higher education consultants in an ever changing university marketplace.

The top ten expected trends in Australian higher education over the coming year reflect not only challenges, but also opportunities.

Growth of Private Higher Education

Australian private universities are typically both smaller and more specialized than their public counterparts, with the exception of private religious schools. Their small student populations and specific programs may create a campus community of students with similar backgrounds, aspirations, and values. Higher education consultants say that such an environment could be attractive to rural students from both in country and overseas.

According to Bond University’s submission to the National Commission of Audit in 2013, private universities’ enhanced capacity to innovate and respond to student needs will expand its market share past the roughly 10 percent it enjoyed at that time. Bond criticized the “overwhelmingly public” system that “lacks the diversity and competitiveness needed” to make Australia’s system world class.

Bond’s submission claimed that “private education is now the norm in other countries such as the USA.”  Indeed private higher education, called “for profit colleges and universities” in the United States, has survived President Barack Obama’s stout regulatory challenge backed by the public university establishment. The variety of offerings occupies a wide range. American Public University System based in Charles Town, West Virginia, about an hour from Washington DC, offers a wide variety of degrees to a nearly 50,000 strong student body whose core is federal employees and servicemen.  Only thirty miles away, Valley College educates between 200 and 300 students in heating and air conditioning repair, nursing, and medical technology, skills in high demand in the region.

Private higher education services, regardless of country, rely on creating what Bond describes as “a learning environment where the personal attributes, aptitudes, and goals of each individual are cultivated.” Growth of this sector will be spurred not only by innovation, but also marketability of skills learned.

International Competition In Higher Education

For decades, the United States has enjoyed dominance in the competition for international students. In sheer numbers, American universities may retain that position for years to come. Australia, however, has emerged as another global leader in both recruitment and retention of students seeking an international experience.

Part of Australia’s formula for success comes from the blueprint laid out, in part by higher education consultants, in the National Strategy for International Education 2025.  The strategy relies on a renewed fundamental commitment to excellence, creating transformative partnerships at home and abroad, and embracing opportunities to both promote excellence and compete more effectively for the 21st century international student. That includes online offerings to students not leaving their home country.

Other countries forged their own push to help their higher education services attract international students and boost prestige. Internationalization initiatives, according to an Oxford report, are “core strategies for virtually all universities aspiring to global significance.” India spent approximately $1.5 billion (US) on quality reforms as attendance skyrocketed. The UK established the Global Challenges and Newton funds to “research on international topics, undertaken through international collaboration.” Russia and China have also allocated significant resources toward elevating their own top schools to join the global elites.

This comes as European Union and American universities have seen drastic cuts in state aid to higher education.

One untapped market for international students may be the United States itself.  Less than two percent of American students study outside the country, but 40 percent of American businesses have lost opportunities due to lack of “internationally competent personnel.” An incentive would seem to exist for US businesses to promote international education of more American students as international competition for students intensifies.

Online Learning in Higher Education

From 2012 to 2017, online education expanded tremendously in Australia, with revenues expected in the five years leading up to 2018 to exceed $3.3 billion. Online higher education services have expanded in part because of the rise in unemployment during that period and the expected economic recovery could dent those numbers. Over 20 universities in Australia now offer online classes.

Higher education consultants believe online offerings will continue to serve as a growing part of student coursework. A study showed that 50 percent of students responded that they liked their online course materials, while just over 30 percent said the same about traditional coursework.

Online offerings will keep evolving, making them more popular among students and instructors alike. They are also important sources of data that universities can use to improve courses and help retention. Also, instructors can get a helping hand from artificial intelligence. The Georgia Institute of Technology in the United States teamed up with IBM to create “Jill Watson,” a virtual teacher’s aide so close to human that many students did not know “she” was a computer.

As online courses become more interesting to students and easier for instructors, their use should continue to expand.

Augmented and Virtual Reality In Higher Education

Higher education consultants agree that technologies that alter or replace sensual perceptions of reality will become more mainstream in university teaching, especially as students use both more in everyday life. Augmented reality is a digital change of something sensed in the real world. One example is the filter on Snapchat images. Pokemon Go, where game players use an app to locate digital images manifested in real places is another. On the other hand, virtual reality copies or replaces the real world.

A two year study by the Office For Learning and Teaching concluded that higher education services would benefit if instructors and administrators “re-examine their methods to ensure that they are engaging students in learning.” It specifically claimed that augmented reality could significantly enhance the learning process. One issue, however, lies in the gap between the technology savvy of instructors and students.

In the US, some universities and the federal government have pushed for more innovation in both fields. The US Department of Education in 2016 offered a prize of nearly $700,000 to the best VR or AR to be applied in what is called in the US “career and technical education.” The project, sponsored by IBM, Microsoft, and others,brought together video reality engineers, video game designers, and educational technology experts to create an “immersive simulation that will prepare students for the globally competitive workforce.”

Some remain skeptical of revolutionary predictions of virtual reality, comparing it to the “MOOCs hype cycle.” They caution that the learning and social experience of the traditional classroom has often been threatened with the next best thing, but has survived.

Shift of Capital and Entrepreneurship In Education to Less Regulated Countries

Regulation, according to many higher education consultants, has grown into a major concern for universities across the world. The Department of Education and Training released a report calling for the deregulation of national higher education, including the reduction of reporting obligations and other bureaucratic burdens, recognizing that the cost has started to impair higher education services.

A bipartisan US Congressional committee found that higher education in that country faced nearly 2,500 pages of statutes, rules, and regulations governing their conduct, many of which are “confusing and difficult to comply with.”  Vanderbilt University estimated that it spent $150 million, or 11 percent of its budget, in 2013 on compliance with federal code.

Universities seek to relieve pressures and find opportunities offshore. The University of Canberra and the University of California at San Francisco looked to India to solve IT staffing issues. Other universities, such as Aberystwyth, Lancaster, and Strathclyde in the UK and Johns Hopkins in the US looked to establish branch campuses in the developing world. The shift in education resources ranging from cost cutting to branch campus establishment has come with mixed results.  Canberra found language and other differences a challenge, while some branch campuses were not sustainable. As the global higher education market grows more competitive and government regulatory bodies continue to add costly burdens, this trend will continue.

Data Analytics and Big Data In Higher Education

Like any other important institution, higher education has both embraced the concept of Big Data and has grown into a more vulnerable target of those who might steal it.

Higher education consultants say that student data, when used properly, can improve both the student experience and education outcomes. It can be used to improve administrative practices, student support services, and be used externally to boost understanding of the impact of higher education services. Unprecedented access to student information is also easier than ever to store and interpret.

Universities serve as a convergence zone for academic, commercial, social, and visitor interests.  When combined with a culture of openness, this melting pot can also be an opportunity for cyber criminals seeking sensitive information. In October 2017 alone, tens of thousands of student records in Nebraska and California in the US were accessed by hackers.  

Despite the risks, accumulation of data and expert interpretation has the potential to help universities improve their programs and policies while building competitive advantage in an increasingly tough educational market.

Ideological Debates Between Left and Right Wing Lecturers

Ideological ferment gripping campuses around the world has not spared Australia. In most cases, the struggles take place over issues such as culture, campus policies regarding free speech and censorship, the importance of the free market, and, in many cases, the role of a university. Additionally in the US the polarizing political presence of the President has added to the furor.

For example, last year, the practice of encouraging course “trigger warnings” came to Australia for the first time.  Monash University, after years of campaigning by the Student Association,, agreed to a request that they be included in course outlines. It also withdrew a textbook from use based on a complaint from a single Chinese student. The Institute of Public Affairs warned that policies such as James Cook University’s outlawing of “unintentional offensive language” and Federation University’s concern over hurt “feelings” could have a chilling effect on both expression and learning.

Debates on US campuses involving faculty, students, and others have harmed public trust in higher education services.  Lynn Pasquellera, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, in a panel last year blamed “recent political jockeying and appeals to people’s fears and prejudices. At the same event, Wesleyan University President Michael Roth accused American academia of intolerance toward “traditional conservative religion and thought.”  He stressed that universities must be centers where students are “learning to learn,” but not “prescribe ways of life people ought to adopt.”

Higher education consultants understand that the stressors underlying these public debates will not disappear soon and that universities must do a better job of encouraging civil disagreement. Otherwise, Australian universities could face some of the same unrest that has erupted on US campuses.

Video Based Learning

While higher education consultants differ over its effectiveness, education will likely follow the lead of the media by increasing incorporation of video learning materials or even entire video taped lectures.

According to the University of Queensland’s Institute for Teaching and Learning Innovation, evidence from decades of research show that many students benefit tremendously from video education. Recorded lectures give students an opportunity to learn at an individualized pace. Studies showed that some watched it straight through at the pace of a normal, live lecture.  Others, however, had to stop and rewind sections to understand the subject matter thoroughly.  Still other students gained the most by stopping, resting, and restarting the videos.

Zac Woofitt of Inholland University asserts that video learning is a crucial part of the future in higher education services, saying that it “is encroaching onto traditional face-to-face teaching in higher education” and that instructors must “bridge the gap in digital competencies.”

Smaller Urban Campuses

Many young adults dream of going off to the huge university in the big city, ready to plunge into all of the opportunities for learning, culture, and fun that await. An increasing number of students, however, seek out higher education services in a more intimate campus community. According to Studies In Australia, “smaller colleges may also offer a more personalized education experience” and that students “may find it easier to settle in and make friends, that there is a real community atmosphere, and that it is harder to get lost in the crowd.”

Advantages do not end there. Higher education consultants agree that small urban campuses offer strong advantages. Classes have fewer students, but are taught by better educated and more experienced professors. Professors prioritize teaching over research, making their classes a better learning experience. Chad Orzel, professor at Union College in the US, claims that small liberal arts schools offer terrific opportunities for aspiring scientists. Although they do less research, small university scientists are more likely to bring on undergraduates as assistants, providing important practical experiences. At larger universities, graduate students usually obtain all such opportunities.

Young adults still increasingly pine for the amenities of big city life while seeking out more cozy and comfortable small urban campuses.

The Internet of Things and Learning

The Internet of Things has woven itself more deeply into everyday household and work life.  Higher education consultants understand that academia will have to both adapt and innovate as the world embraces IoT technology.

SP Jain School of Global Management , one of the top 50 non US MBA programs in the world and has a branch in Sydney, moved from a more traditional model of education to one which incorporates new technology via labs.  Founder Nitak Jain described how “we’ve already set up labs: a blockchain lab and internet of things lab, a machine learning lab . . .”  As technology constantly forces evolutions in commerce and consumption, academia has to keep up.

KPMG’s Professor Stephen Parker agrees, speculating that IoT can revolutionize higher education services. “Technologies such as the internet of things can also expand the creation of ‘smart campuses,’ revolutionizing the everyday student experience. This can include not only coursework, but the entire student environment

Higher education consultants in other countries understand the potential impact.  Last year, researcher Mito Funmari blasted Japan’s slow embrace of technology, claiming “Japanese universities are . . . adaptation laggards” because “adapting to the digital age has not been a priority.” Conversely, some US universities have embraced a spirit of IoT innovation. Professor Lee McKnight of Syracuse University in New York explains how his research explores innovation in machine-to-machine communication. He says “we are not just following industry trends,” but are exploring new applications. Case Western Reserve uses IoT concepts to harvest energy from people and vehicles in motion.

Here one sees the convergence of technology, scientific curiosity, and commercial application that makes IoT development valuable to higher education services.

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