Australia’s business schools have a lot to offer
Last week I stepped down after three years as president of the Australian Business Deans Council (ABDC), whose member university business schools educate almost one quarter of Australia’s domestic university students and half of our international graduates.
Despite the immense challenges during the pandemic, I leave the role in an optimistic frame of mind. With students enlivening campus life once again and a tough two years behind us, there are now significant opportunities emerging.
If properly leveraged, these opportunities offer the possibility of reshaping Australian university business schools. They will enable us to sustain, if not enhance, our global reputation for offering quality education and research that is of immense economic and social benefit to the nation.
I also leave the role believing that these opportunities apply regardless of which party forms government after the federal election. However, leveraging these opportunities requires far stronger dialogue and co-operation between government and the sector than has been the case in recent years.
For a start, business schools need to think more creatively about how they can work together so as optimise their impact on the key social, economic and environmental challenges facing business, government and the community more broadly. There are already encouraging signs that this is happening.
For example, the ABDC’s current strategic priorities include member schools committing to driving research and education that informs and supports business responses to climate change.
Members have also come together to deliver, in partnership with industry, a series of Indigenous Business Summer Schools in several states over the past few years. These Summer Schools for Year 11 and 12 students aim to foster pathways into university business education.
A second opportunity hinges on greater collaboration and partnerships with industry – which fits with the federal government’s recent focus on the research commercialisation. However, these relationships need to be well developed and deepened if they are to be more than discrete commercial transactions with limited impact. They also need to extend beyond research to include professional education and lifelong learning.
Such partnerships would speak to the opportunity for business schools to play a key role in addressing the nation’s skills shortages. They can achieve this not only though conventional degrees, but also through significant partnerships with major organisations and professional bodies. Many business schools are already working with industry partners to identify and address capability gaps and provide workforce training and development through, for example, digitally badged, micro-credentialed short courses or specially designed courses and we can expect to see more such partnerships in the near future.
Small businesses urgently need to regenerate from the travails of the pandemic. Business schools can help and work swiftly with industry and government.
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Business education is often perceived as focusing too much on big business whereas, in reality, many business schools in Australia have an outstanding record of supporting start-ups, entrepreneurs and the small business community that forms the backbone of our economy.
For example, Australia has two of the world’s top tourism schools – at Griffith University and the University of Queensland – and is a leader in sustainable tourism research. Let’s use that expertise to help the tourism sector build back better.
We need to further diversify and rebuild Australia’s international education market, which was decimated by pandemic restrictions.
International students are about so much more than money. They are valuable contributors who provide much needed job skills, stronger links with other nations and enrich our culture in myriad ways.
Business schools have been in the vanguard of international education in Australia and will continue to be significant players under the government’s proposed diversification policy. They will continue to attract students who wish to have the experience of studying overseas. At the same time, there is an enormous opportunity for Australian business schools to engage with a growing online education market globally.
They can lead the way in offering high quality digitally enabled courses – perhaps in partnership with private providers. And to add to their attractiveness, these courses could also, allow for flexibility between studying online and on-campus.
However, we should consider whether international education fees need to match domestic fees for online postgraduate education. Charging international students what domestic students pay for online education may help Australian providers compete with lower priced, yet highly ranked, institutions around the world.
We need to develop degrees that heighten the employment prospects of international students in their home, as well as Australian, job markets. This will require greater, more formalised collaboration with overseas employers and professional bodies. Courses must also include more structured internships and overseas experiences.
The fact that the public did not voice deep concerns when higher education was not given the same support as other industries during Covid may be due in part to universities not showing the value of our work. This involves translating research and knowledge into forms that are easily understandable to those outside the academy.
This week the ABDC is releasing a book that uses research and interviews with high-profile academics and journalists to guide academics on how to share their research, knowledge and expertise more effectively. We in the academy have so much of value to offer and yet, if I am candid, we are all too often our own worst enemy at communicating this.
Despite significant staff cuts over the past two years, universities still have the talented, dedicated workforces essential to delivering the opportunities outlined above.
If we are to avoid haemorrhaging such talent, we must act urgently to retain and attract it.
Pay is only part of the solution, there must also be a supportive, well-resourced working environment that accentuates training and development. This will ensure that the next generation of educators and researchers is highly motivated, creative and innovative – a good thing for universities and the communities that they serve.
Professor David Grant is immediate past president of the Australian Business Dean’s Council. After three decades in higher education, he will step down from his position as pro vice-chancellor (business) at Griffith University in April. The new ABDC President is Professor Keryn Chalmers, dean of the School of Business, Law and Entrepreneurship at Swinburne University.