Higher education is an important topic around the world: never more so than now as we face a global recession and as the role of universities in contributing to economic prosperity is up for fresh examination.

Not surprisingly, much of the attention has been on whole education systems, funding schemes and the performance of providers. Overwhelmingly, we could say, scrutiny and prediction have focused on what might be called the supply side of education: systems, providers, teachers, curriculum and outcomes.

Much less focus has been placed on the student or learner: the demand side. True ‘student experience’ is a current catchcry, fuelled by the rise of education markets and the imperative for many providers to attract enrolments. Universities have spent significant time, effort and funding variously trying to optimise or transform it. Even here, however, we tend to veer towards the ‘experience’ rather than ‘the student’, perhaps because it is something over which we might have some control.

In this report, KPMG Australia seeks to redress that imbalance: our research and recommendations are based on consultation with sector experts across all parts of Australia’s education system, national student representatives, global research on universities’ student-centricity and evidence of how disruptive forces will impact higher education and students themselves will change in the 2020s.

We propose ways to design and deliver student experiences that authentically engage with each learner's abilities, aspirations and circumstances, cognisant of the changing world in which students and universities will operate.

We also suggest ways to develop an evidence-based student strategy and outline KPMG Connected Enterprise for Higher Education as a holistic way of advancing student-centred institutional reform in terms of capabilities, technology and operating model.

Students of the future will be:

  • Diverse – Change drivers globally and locally are creating greater diversity in the expected student population, with more to come in this decade. Today, the average Australian acquires more than 80 per cent of their knowledge and skills before the age of 21. By 2040, Australians will acquire 41 percent of their knowledge and skills as adults, with older Australians dedicating an average of six hours out of their working week to education and training.
  • Digital – Investment in digital education will be critical for universities’ success, and maybe even survival, between now and 2030. People have become comfortable with, and found convenience in, remote working and are likely to retain a fair proportion of continuing to do so in their post COVID-19 work patterns.
  • Discerning – Learners will be more self-actualising, better informed, more instrumental and deliberate in their choices in coming years, whether these choices are driven by passion or purpose or a combination. The increased proportion of people who return to university as seasoned learners and professionals will be influenced by modern ways of working in their workplaces.
  • Demanding – Prospective students will increasingly make evidence-based decisions on what qualification (or module) to choose from any particular institution. On an annual basis, students’ and graduates’ overall satisfaction with what they have been provided by their universities is measured and benchmarked across the sector.
  • Debt-averse – As global economic conditions worsen as a result of COVID-19 and its aftermath, prospective tertiary students around the globe will make decisions as self-interested, rational economic actors. Low wage growth, underemployment and unemployment all impact younger households inequitably, creating little room for discretionary expenditure for many.

We hope you find the report useful as a thought-provoker and practical guide to building institutional sustainability based on deeply student-centric approaches. As Australia’s universities chart their post COVID-19 course, they cannot assume that more of the same will be sufficient when it comes to attracting and partnering with students on their educational and professional journeys.

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