Higher education: one of Australia's biggest exports

Universities are no longer the bastions of privilege they once were. The once hallowed halls of learning have been replaced with global institutions all competing for a piece of the knowledge pie. So, what does this mean for the tertiary education sector?

Marion Cabanes

The first major changes to higher education began in western countries like the USA, UK and Australia in the 1980s. Institutions began abandoning the historical elite system of post-secondary education in favour of a massified system – and this ushered in the prospect of universal education. Universities and other higher education institutes were encouraged to become places where knowledge, information and ideas could be accessed by the masses. This cultural shift brought about some drastic transformations. According to a 2014 Australian Government Department of Education and Training report, in Australia alone, the number of domestic higher education students more than doubled between 1989 and 2014, reaching just over a million. The number of providers and their diversity also grew, with around 20 new public universities entering the market – as well as the emergence of significant numbers of non-university providers.

Dr Heather Davis, the Tertiary Education Management Program Director at the University of Melbourne’s LH Martin Institute, expands on what these changes mean and what’s driving the sector today. She explains that while the massified model provides access to more students and more diversity in terms of socio-economic and geographic backgrounds – people working in tertiary education management today will have to realise new futures for their organisations. Dr Davis states that tertiary education managers are in the middle of a period of unceasing transformation “due to outdated legacy systems from a time when higher education was funded as an elite system.” She adds, “We are sandwiched between these legacy challenges as well as the ones to come—likely disruption due to technical advances in digitisation, machine learning and automation”.

According to Dr Davis the massified system has brought about both challenges and opportunities. One of the major challenges has been around funding – it has become the key catalyst for change. Dr Davis says, “The system and funding arrangements are now overstretched and unable to cope with the realities of mass enrolments of domestic and international students”. In Australia, where once the government was the major funder of higher education, Dr Davis claims most universities nowadays “could well fit the bill of a private provider – whilst classified still as public universities – given the percentage of funding provided by the public purse.” She says, “As these funding arrangements began to change in the 1980s, universities had to become more innovative and find alternative sources of income to keep achieving their core mission.” Additional strain was created through what Dr Davis describes as the “mixed economy”. She says, “Unlike many sectors, we operate under two masters; government funding and reporting arrangements for public funds; as well as the market economy where we are globally competing for students, talented staff and research income.”

In the race to compete in a global education economy, higher education institutions have had big wins as well. In Australia, the tertiary education market has become one of our biggest exports – up there with the resources sector. The calibre of both teaching and research at Australian universities has become an international drawcard. In 2017, the QS World University Rankings placed five Australian institutions among the global top 50, including the University of Melbourne. Further, figures from the Federal Education Department show that in November 2017 there were 621,192 international students in Australia, an increase of more than 13 per cent from the previous year.

While the higher education sector has been adapting to major disruption, administrators working in tertiary education management – which emerged as a distinct role more noticeably from the 1970s in Australia – have had to ride this tidal wave of transformation. This has created a need for continuing professional development and specialised qualifications to equip professionals to be able to respond to the needs of an evolving sector. Dr Davis says, “We've had some change but there's a lot of disruption still to come, and it's really important to have the foundations for that, so we can actually draw on those skills in order to cope and contribute to what is ahead.”

The online Tertiary Education Management courses at the University of Melbourne provide a point of difference compared to other generalist management degrees. Unlike an MBA, Dr Davis states the Master of Tertiary Education (Management) is “for the sector by the sector” and helps students “make sense of what is a very complex space.” She adds, “We have a really deep grounding in the sector and our courses (which also include Graduate Certificates in Tertiary Education Management, Governance or Quality Assurance) have all been contextualised for our sector.”

Dr Davis enthuses that the added benefit of studying the Tertiary Education Management courses online is the opportunity cost. She says, “We offer these courses with a very low opportunity cost in that you don't have to leave your job to upgrade your skills. You can be working full-time anywhere in the world and still have access to the really important studies to prepare for step change in the sector that we think is on the horizon.” She adds, “I think this program helps academic and professional services staff get a grounding and be proactive in making contributions in this far-from-certain period of adjustment and transformation.”

In this knowledge era, the online Tertiary Education Management courses are creating opportunities for success. Dr Davis says, “We certainly have had some major successes with students – given their aspirations to go into senior management – and they’ve done that.” She adds, “We've got a particular graduate who owns a private tertiary education institution in New Zealand and is absolutely influencing governments and changing policy at the highest levels, and she has credited the Master of Tertiary Education (Management) as contributing to achieving those goals.”

To find out more about navigating a career in tertiary education management read Dr Heather Davis’ editorial. And for details about the University of Melbourne online Tertiary Education program download a course guide below or find out more info here.