A new report has predicted COVID-19 will spell the demise of regional universities and the traditional university experience as students demand digital, on-demand and almost-free tertiary education.
And they believe further education will be increasingly tied to employers with on-the-job learning and micro-qualifications as employment needs change becoming more prevalent.
The EY Australia report, based on interviews with 32 vice chancellors and experts from Australia and New Zealand, also reveals few think university student numbers will return to the pre-pandemic peak of 2019 and institutions will have to find other income streams that place less reliance on government funding and international student payments.
EY (formerly Ernst & Young) Global Head of Education and report author Catherine Friday said research showed almost two thirds of Australians who were looking to study would consider enrolling themselves in online learning anywhere in the world.
But Federation University vice chancellor Professor Duncan Bentley is looking on the bright side, at the opportunities that future requirements offer to institutions willing to step up and meet the evolving needs.
"There is no doubt that COVID has had a significant impact on the whole university sector in Australia but where there are challenges, there are also opportunities," Professor Bentley said.
"Being a regional university gives us an advantage. We are more connected to our communities and have strong partnerships with government and our region's local employers."
Professor Bentley said Federation University had been working to reimagine what university and learning should be in response to the challenges thrown up by COVID over the past 18 months.
"Our plans for growth will transform the way our regions think of their own development and meeting the challenges of lifelong learning and multiple careers," he said.
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Ms Friday said the report predicted the higher education sector would need to reposition itself as a 'Knowledge Services' sector to attract students.
"With fewer students, the traditional university campus is dead and the higher education sector must adapt by offering more digital and on-demand courses to attract future students," she said. "There is increasing demand for learning that is continual, flexible, customisable, and close to free."
."Despite the challenges, there is still a pathway to success for the higher education system. However, it will require systemic reform from the sector and government to meet the converging challenges of changing preferences, ongoing public health restrictions and competition from upstart and international education providers."
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