Universities are among the strongest brands in the world, and I believe this will remain true in the future. However, for many to remain viable in a post-COVID, resource constrained context, we’re going to see them return to their education roots, specialise more, and collaborate more.
This is being driven by three major trends: (1) recession – leading to a scarcity of funding and resources; (2) travel restrictions – which has disrupted international student mobility and the associated revenue; and (3) differentiation – previously driven by academic rankings, this will increasingly become driven by specialisation.
Australia has seen international education become by far our most valuable services export, and our fourth largest export sector overall behind iron ore, coal and gas. For many Australian universities, the profit from international students has also allowed significant investment in research and infrastructure that has led to some highly successful research programs. COVID-19 and international travel restrictions have cut that revenue and derailed the funding model, causing universities to reset.
It is an important time to remember the core purpose of our universities, which is to deliver an outstanding education to the future leaders of the world and create the skills that will underpin our future industries, jobs and prosperity. I believe universities will focus on the critical role they play in delivering the highest quality teaching available, be that via remote learning, in person or a hybrid version of the two. Research will remain important, but funding will scale back as the global economy cools – those that focus and specialise on fewer but bigger things, will stand out.
We are also going to see more specialisation and differentiation between universities, and clarity on the role each plays in the innovation system. James Cook University in Queensland, for instance, leads on research areas of relevance to the tropics. Globally, we are going to see more collaboration between universities and their national science agencies, both to pool resources for impact and to create channels to industry to commercialise research. Canada, Singapore, and Germany have done this well.
As Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO collaborates with most Australian universities through research and co-publication, postgraduate student supervision, Cooperative Research Centres and through our ON accelerator program and venture fund.
Role clarity is the key to collaboration. Universities teach our next generation, and leverage the profits (alongside government funding) to create Australia’s world-class research.
There is a myth that Australian universities are no good at commercialisation, but globally commercialisation revenue is low for universities. Australian universities do what universities around the world do, and do it better than most – their role is not to create industry, but to mould the minds of those that will.
We need to support university researchers with a well-connected ecosystem that includes channels to industry, working collaboratively with applied agencies like the CSIRO. On the funding side, we will also need to undergo a shift in mindset, from competing for shrinking pots of funding to collaborating on projects that get funded because they have impact.
“If we are coordinated and collaborative in our efforts, with clear roles and specialist expertise, we can achieve so much more. Our civilisation is faced with some big challenges – how do we feed 3 billion more people with half as much water? How do we address climate change?”
There’s no shortage of things to do, but we need to decide where we are going to focus and concentrate our efforts collectively. COVID-19 showed us what we can achieve when we work together. In a resource constrained world, collaborating with defined roles and clarity of purpose will both preserve the university sector and further mankind.
Dr Larry Marshall is Chief Executive of CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency and innovation catalyst. CSIRO solves the greatest challenges through innovative science and technology. Larry is a scientist, technology innovator and business leader with a wealth of experience in creating new value and impact with science. He has a PhD in Physics and became a global leader in laser research, for which he was honoured as a Federation Fellow and later as an ATSE (Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering) Fellow.