How Australian universities have taken an agile approach to adapting to COVID-19

How Australian universities have taken an agile approach to adapting to COVID-19


By Libby Hackett

When COVID-19 started spreading across the world Australian universities were preparing for a new academic year. Soon restrictions on travel from China left up to 100,000 international students outside Australia, and the next month campuses were forced to close and teaching shifted online.

COVID-19 was the biggest shock to hit the Australian university system in history. It has cost universities an estimated A$3 billion to A$4.5 billion in revenue and put up to 21,000 jobs at risk.

As universities in the UK prepare for the start of their new academic year, we thought it would be useful to hear from the university leaders on the front lines of these major decisions.

In collaboration with Universities UK International (UUKi), the international arm of Universities UK, Nous Group recently hosted a webinar to explore the Australian higher education sector’s response to COVID-19.

As a Principal at Nous with experience in higher education in both countries, I was on the panel alongside Professor Paul Wellings (Vice-Chancellor at the University of Wollongong), Dr Michael Spence (Vice-Chancellor at the University of Sydney and incoming Provost at UCL). Our chair was Vivienne Stern, Director of UUKi.

The webinar enabled UK and international participants to hear and explore Australian universities’ strategies for recovery.

A diagram showing Australian higher education during COVID-19

Our panellists offered several valuable insights:

  • Universities need to maintain links with students affected by border closures. Universities in Australia moved quickly to make learning accessible remotely. Within two weeks of the lockdown, the University of Sydney had moved more than 1,000 units of study online for its 73,000 students. Dr Spence himself led weekly Chinese-language broadcasts to students unable to return from China to Australia at the start of the academic year. This personal engagement has powerfully signalled the value institutions place on their international students.
  • Disadvantaged students need financial and practical support. Australian universities – and some state governments – have provided financial support to domestic and international students experiencing hardship due to COVID-19 restrictions. The University of Wollongong has released A$5 million in direct support to students who have lost earnings in the now-closed gig economy. The universities of Sydney and Wollongong both provided millions of dollars’ worth of hardware and software to help learners who were struggling get online from home. These practical interventions protected the outcomes and experiences of lower-income students.
  • Good leadership considers the short term and the long term. Each stakeholder has its own time horizon for its concerns: students have immediate worries about their learning journey; academics are thinking about student progress, assessments and research deadlines over the months ahead; prospective students are anxious about their university experience next year; finance departments are thinking about the three-year outlook; and boards and executives are considering the long-term future. Each stakeholder’s priorities matter. University leaders need to keep their eye on all these time horizons to ensure strategic leadership and that a quick fix in one area will not have unintended consequences in another.
  • Agile universities need to embed new practices developed through COVID-19. Universities have risen to the challenge of the pandemic with energy and dynamism. Teaching and learning has undergone a transformation in three months that would have taken three years during normal times. The silos separating academic and professional services staff have been broken as everyone has worked together to change against the clock. Universities have demonstrated enormous organisational agility and rapid decision-making ability. Universities are taking a close look at what can be learnt from this experience and how to embed this new practice to normalise the gains.

We thank everyone involved in the webinar. The webinar can be found on Universities UK International’s YouTube channel.

Get in touch to discuss how we can help your university take an agile approach to the new operating environment.

Written by Libby Hackett during her time as a Principal at Nous.

Prepared with input from Antonia Instone

Published on 17 June 2020.