Monday, October 19, 2020

ACT Higher Education Post-COVID-19 Strategy

Canberra's universities need to change how they work to remain viable during, and after ,the COVID-19 emergency. The major post-secondary educational institutions in the ACT are the Australian National University, University of Canberra and the Canberra Institute of Technology. I have studied at all three and am on the staff at ANU, however, these suggestions do not necessarily reflect the current policy of any, or of the ACT Government. I will be discussing some of this at an ANU symposium on Thursday.

The approach to COVID-19 has been short term, assuming that it will be over in months. However, it may take years to recover and it is certain there will be further pandemics in the future. Also the geo-political situation Australia finds itself in may result in international students again being unable, or unwilling, to study on Canberra's campuses, without warning. In addition other countries are offering increasingly attractive quality online and blended learning. Both Australian and international students may decide to take up those offers, if Canberra's institutions do not have quality, cost effective, flexible educational offerings. 

1. Adapt Infection Control Measures for Institutions

Reduced distancing for students

COVID-19 restrictions in the ACT have been eased, but even the current STAGE 3 makes it difficult for educational institutions.  As an example, the ACT requires persons to remain 1.5 m apart. I propose that for educational institutions, this be reduced to the WHO recommended distance of 1 m

Where seated, people should be able to be 250 mm apart, side to side. This would allow existing fixed seating lecture theaters to be used at 50% capacity, with every second chair empty. Active lecture theaters, flexible learning spaces and laboratories could be used at full capacity. Institutions should be encouraged to build these guidelines into the design of new teaching spaces to reduce infection rates for annual respiratory infections and allow for future outbreak measures.

Tracking on campus

The ACT Government and institutions should commission a tracking application compatible with the Apple/Google Privacy-Preserving Contact Tracing Standard. Unlike the current Australian Govenrment's COVIDSafe App, this would be reliable, effective and voluntarily taken up.

2. Training for Hybrid Teaching 

Canberra's university have been able to quickly introduce online learning for students unable to get to campus. Unfortunately, most people teaching at university have not been trained to teach online. and have no formal qualifications for doing so. Vocational teachers at CIT, and private providers, are required to have a qualification in training and assessment. It is proposed that the ACT Government assist Canberra's universities to introduce a qualification for university teachers at least to the standard for vocational education. This could be provided a set of micro-credentials building to an AQF qualification.

3. Offering Hybrid Qualifications

In the past domestic and international students have been required to move to Canberra to undertake the majority of their university studies. I suggest this be changed so that a typical student can undertake 80% of their study online. The ACT Government can lobby the federal government to make the necessary changes to visa rules for international students. The Canadian government has already eased its visa rules, making Australia a less desirable destination. 

The ACT Government can assist Canberra's universities to develop advanced qualifications in the design and delivery of education to provide a quality online experience. This can then be used in marking campaigns national and internationally which emphasize students can have both the flexibility of an online education and the option of quality lifestyle experience in Canberra, leading to a world-class qualification.

4. Work Integrated Learning

Many vocational qualifications require students to undertake work experience as part of their degree. This is increasingly seen as a desirable part of any university qualification. However, international students experience problems obtaining access to a workplace in Canberra, due to federal government restrictions on non-citizens working for the public service and for government contractors. I suggest the ACT Government assist the Canberra Innovation Network to expand its current start-up program,. Also the ANU's Innovation ACT and TechLauncher programs could be expanded to provide cross institutional participation.

5. Vocational Supplementation to University Qualifications

The Canberra Institute of Technology has the capacity to provide training to supplement the university education of students. I suggest the ACT Government work with the universities to develop and market standard packages of degrees with vocational qualifications.

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