Online education

winner takes all?


As we continue to adjust to post-pandemic conditions, aexpectations for a return to normal are replaced with speculation about what the new normal will be like. A look into the likely futures of university education.

Global trends are increasingly pushing universities to compete in the market of online education. This space, previously occupied by commercial entities (short course providers like Coursera, Udemy, Lynda), is now filling with universities which are adapting their curricula for distance learning, and readying to compete in a global tertiary education market. This trend presents both a threat and an opportunity for Australian universities, which could either lose part of the current domestic and international student market, or use online platforms to grow their education exports even further.

One of the key risks in an increasingly globalised education marketplace is the monopolisation of education provision, and the resulting impacts that could have for world nations in terms of equity, the erosion of human and social capital, and loss of educational capabilities (both human resources and infrastructure). This risk weighs particularly heavily on smaller social sciences disciplines, which, according to stakeholders are already struggling to ensure sustained capability.

This section summarises the key ingredients of this trend, as a foundation for future discussion (Figure 19). The steps taken by the university sector over the next years in response to the online shift will be critical not only to the future of each university, but to the overall strength of our disciplines, and the national tertiary education system.

Enabling trends

  • Technological innovations(e.g. broadband, videoconferencing).
  • Increasing access to personal computers and internet.
  • Online delivery of tertiary education increasingly acceptable.
  • Changing student expectations about flexibility in delivery (24/7 access, off-campus).
  • Economic globalisation.
  • Economies of scale (e.g., single video lecture can now be reproduced and, potentially, sold to millions, globally).

    The future of the lecture

    The traditional lecture, delivered in-person by a qualified university staff member, is amongst the candidates for radical change. Think points:

    • Quality and transparency. Australian universities have started outsourcing online teaching from third party providers. Online students are not always made aware of the differences in service, or benefit from cost savings reflections in tuition fees.
    • Innovation. On the bright side, course and assessment design could take a turn for the better, with the tools made available by online teaching, such as video and interactivity.


    Three reasons why traditional universities need to seriously consider the micro-credentials market:

    • Government wants them: they have been earmarked for introduction in the Australian Qualifications Framework. When they do, the education budget will likely begin to be split with micro-credential providers.
    • Employers want them: consulted industry stakeholders are either looking for suitable providers or developing their own programs.
    • Non-traditional students need them: in a swiftly changing environment, older Australians in or entering the workforce are having to constantly re-skill and up-skill. The future is one of long-life learning.

      The Australian premium

      Traditionally, factors such as Australia’s physical proximity to Asian nations, weather, and its attraction as a tourism or immigration destination were important advantages in favour of education exports. Many of these advantages lose relevance in an online education environment. What could Australia’s selling points be in a global online education market?

        Go hyperlocal?

        Going hyperlocal is one potential strategy to ensure Australian universities remain relevant and competitive, at least in the domestic market. Examples of hyperlocal initiatives might include the strengthening of ties with domestic industry partners; in-person entrepreneurship and mentoring programs; or campus-based research, study or sports communities.

        The future of the traditional campus is also at stake. Will these massive pieces of infrastructure face the same struggles as brick-and-mortar shopping centres? Or find a rebirth as hubs for collaborative partnerships? What will the new infrastructure anchors be?

        Equity considerations

        • Access. By 2020, 10% of Australia’s population remained without access to the internet. Those with lower incomes, indigenous, over 65, or with a disability are most often excluded.
        • Public spending. If a significant portion of domestic students were lost to foreign providers, we would lose millions in unrealised benefits from public spending in education.
        • Public interest. If a large portion of domestic students opted for an online undergraduate education by a foreign provider, they would no longer be educated by institutions who have their interest, and that of Australia, at heart.