Ken Rogoff’s recent op-ed laments the glacial pace in which universities worldwide are changing, quickly falling behind global developments in technology and artificial intelligence to deliver a stagnant and ‘boring’ learning experience. If universities are seen to be leading innovation through research, why is there such a large gap between the groundbreaking findings of academics and the lacklustre learning experience for students?

Working towards a better student experience

Through our work with tertiary institutions in Australia, we have experienced first-hand the challenge of driving an innovation agenda within this context. Unlike other industries, university faculty members have enormous power over the administration. The real (or perceived) divide between academic staff and student administration stops innovation in its tracks, reverting programs quickly back to safe and incremental change. Progress is further halted through significant internal complexities, siloed departmental thinking, and a lack of internal empowerment for staff in administration functions.

Beyond internal challenges, the mandate to improve student-experience is often cursory, lacking the adequate, cross-functional engagement to enact meaningful change. Administrators may ask, what’s the imperative to improve student experience anyway? Arguably, many of Australian institutions are already ranked amongst the global top 100 and with demand-driven enrolments, student numbers are predicted to rise 45 percent by 2025. It’s unlikely that student recruitment will be a driver for improved student experience in the near term.

The tertiary landscape

Let alone the complex ‘customer’ relationship between tertiary institutions and their students. It’s true that students must contribute to their education experience as much as the academics must support them. But if students aren’t really ‘customers’, to what extent must tertiary institutions provide tools that streamline student experience? If it means that students are well advised and supported throughout their studies so they can use their time well, and benefit fully from study, surely universities would consider this a priority?

Yet, in our experience working with universities on student experience, many are failing to provide even the most basic administrative functions well. University student systems are renowned for being slow, difficult to manage and inefficient for both students and staff. And while the ramifications of this may not immediately impact student demand, we have seen evidence that student retention and advocacy is seriously suffering with mid to long-term consequences.

Incredibly, cynics might suggest that navigating a complex, bureaucratic process is an intended learning outcome of tertiary education. Universities once set out to prepare students for defined roles in hierarchical organisations, but the workforce has already changed. The shift from process-driven to purpose-driven organisations requires our universities to rethink their structure and intended student outcomes. If the sector continues to lag when it comes to overall student experience, how long will it be until traditional forms of education like University are disrupted or become entirely obsolete?