Degrees down under: how are Australian universities different to their UK peers?

In early March 2020, a group of representatives from Australian universities sat around a table in London to tell University Business about life in their institutes, and what most impresses – and surprises – them about their UK peers

How do universities operate on the other side of the world? Intriguingly different in several ways, it turns out.

We’re in a conference room in London, with leaders from Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, and Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne – at a roundtable event hosted by global software company TechnologyOne, as part of their global mobility programme (AKA #OneEduTour) – to find out more.

Early doors

The UK and Australia diverge in their approach to student experience long before students have even enrolled, the delegates explain.

Sean Elwick, CIO of Swinburne, is struck by a University of Lincoln open day he recently witnessed: “The parents were very much part of it. That is something I will take away. It was very much a focal part of their recruitment process.”

Peter Nikoletatos, global industry director for education at TechnologyOne, and former HE CIO, agrees: “That’s the first thing I wrote down – open days.” He has also noted that these are attended by both year 11s and year 12s, that many HEIs launch dedicated apps for the day, and the whole event serves as “an early enquiry system”.

In Australia, it’s very, very rare for a student to go to university outside their home city

Community and cohort

Whereas open days in the UK are crammed with students drawn from all corners of the country, in Australia, says Elwick, “It’s very, very rare for a student to go to university outside their home city.”

Nikoletatos elaborates: “There’s a reason for that – in Australia, it’s driven by state-based UACs (university admission centres), run state by state.” That is, prospects (other than international ones) must submit separate enquiries for each state.

“The UK is more like the US,” says Nikoletatos. “People go to college generally away from their homes. They go there, they live on campus, they have a campus experience – in Australia most students that go to universities generally hold down full-time positions or part-time jobs in the local area, and they go on and off the campus; they don’t live there.”

Simon Wilkinson, director of HiQ (the front of house service hub) and library services at Queensland University of Technology (QUT), has observed that a student’s cohort is much less important to them in Australia. “In Australia, if they have to do another unit away from their cohort, it’s no issue at all. Here, the cohort is the centre of a student’s universe.”

Adds Nikoletatos: “The notion of resits is quite profound here – it is more the exception than the rule. In Australia, however, you could go up to nine or 10 years in your undergraduate degree, failing each subject three times before you finally pass. You’re almost encouraged.”

Michelle Gillespie, Swinburne’s director of student administration and library services, points out that in Australia it’s perfectly conventional to take gap years, or study breaks, as you progress through higher education:

“It would be normal to take five years to complete a degree. Every unit, students have a couple of weeks to change their subjects. We’re very conscious our students have jobs and lives around uni.”

This isn’t only about pastoral care and the famous Aussie laid-back approach, of course. “Every student that you retain equates to a significant fund,” Wilkinson says.

Nikoletatos explains that, within Australian higher education, the attrition rate is typically somewhere between 5 to 15%. “Adjust that by one percentage point down and that will extrapolate into millions of dollars.”

Sean Elwick: Swinburne University CIO

Surprise, surprise

Asked to share the one most surprising difference they’ve observed about UK HE during their visit, Wilkinson points to mental health awareness: “The investment and the attention that’s being put into mental wellbeing is significantly huge.”

Elwick, meanwhile, has been most struck by the organisational structure of UK universities, specifically, “the continued alignment between estates and IT – that convergence of physical and digital, the importance of those coming together to ensure optimum student experience.
“That is far ahead from where we are in Australia.”

What has surprised him, Nikoletatos says, is the “fairly subtle” differences.

“Governance is pretty strong in the UK – here it is driven by good, strong governance models.
“Also, we have three times the number of students in the average university – 30–40,000 students typically.”

Overall, Australia follows, and is inspired by, the UK’s higher education policy and practices, he concludes. Nonetheless: “I would bluntly suggest that Australia is ahead of the curve in its ability to respond quickly to things.

“The UK is more conservative.”

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