Professor Andrew McAuley, CEO IFET, Brisbane, Australia and Advisory Board Member

Letter from Australia: July 2020

We all have already recognised that 2020 is not what we thought it was going to be. Wherever we started the year, this is not the place we thought we would be by July. Being a good Celt I was at Stirling Castle, in Scotland, watching the fireworks with my daughter and her sister, full of optimism for the year ahead as many of us are at that time of year.

Now we have come to have to recognise many new words and phrases as they enter our common language. When the Oxford English Dictionary picks it word of the year for 2020, be sure that ‘Social Distancing’, ‘Self-isolation’ and ‘Abundance of Caution’ will be in the running for the top spot!

While Australia has, so far, been relatively ‘lucky’ with the impact of Covid-19 in terms of overall case numbers and deaths compared to the rest of the world; the economic and lifestyle impact has been far-reaching, and this includes the impact on Higher Education.

Across the globe educational institution are ‘pivoting’ (another word for the list) to new ways of delivery as they switch to online and cancel face-to-face classes. In line with this trend one of the institutes I work with in Australia, the Institute for Emotion Focused Therapy, has made adjustments to its schedule and mode of delivery. This was crucial for the safety of the students, staff and all those they would come in contact with if we went about ‘business as normal’. These are clearly not normal times, but for the foreseeable this is very much the ‘new normal’.

The delivery format changed from face-to-face workshops every six weeks to weekly webinars and online support. While some, staff and students, were sceptical of the changes the subsequent response from the students and staff has been fascinating. We have found that the student outcomes have been improved with deeper learning and enhanced student engagement. The quality of assignments has improved, and engagement with additional reading material has increased. The students are telling us they are getting better results in theoretical and practical components of their learning. Perhaps, surprisingly, the client-therapist interaction has also achieved a level of intimacy online which was not expected. This experience opens up the possibility to reach many more students across Australia with our courses.

It is almost ironic that it has taken a global pandemic to bring alternative modes of delivery into the spotlight. With virtually all higher education institutions having to rethink what they do and the regulator, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA), being generally supportive of these changes in the face of no real alternative at present.

The Higher Education sector in Australia faces significant challenges in the next 1-2 years due to the impact of the pandemic. The July 2020 intake of international students, so crucial to the financing of many institutions, has been lost. With international borders closed the March 2021 intake is in doubt and while there has been talk of air bridges, chartered planes and quarantining of arrivals, there are issue of cost and control of that whole process. Uncertainty abounds with no surety of a vaccine. These are not easy times and many universities are currently seeking agreement with staff to defer pay rises and/or accept pay cuts while some have found compromises. Others have already gone to voluntary redundancies with the prospect of compulsory redundancies later in the crisis. At present the Federal Government has shown no inclination towards a bailout of the sector. There is a nagging question if universities made enough of the golden years of international student coming to Australia in saving for a rainy day? Perhaps some thoughts on that are for another letter.

Meanwhile, please stay safe and be supportive of others less fortunate.

Professor Andrew McAuley, Visiting Professor, University of Chester.

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