Three opportunities for Universities to retain positive impact beyond COVID-19

Three opportunities for universities amidst COVID-19
19 June, 2020
Vikki Hartley
Principal & Education Practice Director, Mercer

As one of the main contributors to the Australian economy, the higher education sector is disrupting its thinking in order to address old and new challenges in response to COVID-19.


Vikki Hartley, Principal & Education Practice Director, reflects on some of the opportunities that higher education institutes can consider as they apply the learnings taken from managing through a global pandemic.



Before COVID-19, we lived in a world where universities were led by a strong academic agenda, this being face-to-face learning, depth in research, international students as a significant revenue stream and, a primarily static workforce.


COVID-19 quickly became the catalyst for changes the university sector had been grappling with for a number of years: what does the senior leadership profile need to be? Is the current university business model sustainable as government funding continues to reduce? Is the student experience competitive enough to make our university the top choice?


What we have seen during the COVID-19 response is the possibility for universities to address these questions quickly and effectively. Consequently, the question becomes – in a post COVID-19 world, what do universities need to keep to sustain the positive impacts long term and what do they need to leave behind?


The COVID 19 Response - Impact and Opportunity

The COVID 19 Response - Impact and Opportunity



Opportunity #1 – Maintain elements of 'crisis-mode' leadership


A senior leadership role at a university comes with the expectation that the incumbent will have the right balance of academic knowledge, outstanding research, successful leadership and business acumen, on all occasions.


During a crisis, business continuity is mobilised via a reduction in bureaucracy and red tape and the heightened change management skills of senior leaders. In such circumstances, leaders are supercharged with high functioning strengths in decisiveness, agility, vulnerability and authenticity. When the crisis is over and it is back to business as usual, these strengths can slip into lengthy consultations, change papers, layers of approval and somewhat archaic and complex processes. By the time the university has gone through a business as usual change management process and reached their conclusion, the question has evolved and the proposed solution is no longer relevant. This then leads to the default position of keeping it almost exactly as it was.


Out of crisis mode, the once supercharged senior leadership strengths that enable effective change at speed are somewhat rested. There is no doubt that some situations in a university require a more complex level of contemplation before change is made. However, if universities are going to keep up with the course requirements and new student demands that will continue to evolve under the influence of a changing society and economy, then now is the time to expect these supercharged strengths to remain in a post COVID-19 world.



Opportunity #2 – The Student Experience: where to now?


The 2019 Student Experience Survey reported a positive uplift in the student satisfaction levels provided by Australian institutions. Fast forward to the COVID-19 response and there is now a very different experience to consider for the 2020 review. Over 1.4 million students throughout Australia are now studying online and being catapulted into unfamiliar spaces, with new and different levels of flexibility and learning/assessment platforms at their fingertips.


As the experience of learning throughout the COVID-19 pandemic will contribute to the consistent evolution of student expectations, there are three potential focus areas:


  1. Retaining the most effective balance for mixed course delivery: As universities think through what a long-term plan for virtual learning may look like, key considerations will include how to progress the flexibility of learning anywhere anytime, while generating a balance with the life experience and support structure of being on campus, face-to-face with peers and educators.|

  2. Carrying out proctored examinations on a larger scale: Online exams and assessments are a reality; however, COVID-19 meant that students had little or no other option on the table when it came to progressing with testing their knowledge. What this did was remove the anxiety or fear of the unknown around data security measures and potential technology failure. It opened up an expanded way of operating and allowed universities and students to experience remote invigilation on a more serious scale.

  3. Investment in technology and innovation: The role technology plays in the learning experience is crucial and institutions consistently look for new ways to innovate. Now is the time to leverage an agile mindset and expand further into the availability of virtual and augmented reality for support and education during some of the more experiential course requirements. This can even add a new dimension to the more traditional lectures. There needs to be continuous exploration into new communication platforms and evolution in expectations of learning management system providers such as, but not limited to, Moodle, Canvas and Blackboard as they too work through enhancements and changes.

As universities consider the possibilities of a new and enhanced student experience, continued attention on maintaining safety whilst learning online needs to be a top priority. Delivering an engaging learning experience and capturing the lessons learnt during this pandemic will also need to be factors considered when designing the unique selling points for new enrolments in a post COVID-19 world. Student retention will be high on the university agenda, as many more options will become available for them to choose the experience they are looking for, to suit their needs and their lifestyle.



Opportunity #3 – A flexible workforce


The COVID-19 response forced many organisations to mobilise their entire workforce under remote circumstances. Organisations made the impossible possible and as a result the internal conversation shifted from “what is the right level of flexibility to show we trust you, but still maintain control over your performance” to “we trust you to do the work that is in line with the needs of the organisation, until you give us a reason not to”. Flexible working in a post COVID-19 world will look very different and it is important to understand the right balance required to suit all.  


Overall, there have been many positive impacts of Australia working from home such as realised flexibility, better health and wellbeing outcomes, increased efficiency and that all-important, truly blended work-life balance. This will mean that the organisation Employee Value Proposition (EVP) will need to change for long-term flexible working considerations to ensure the attraction and retention of talent.





There are and will be many learnings to be taken from the experience of managing through a global pandemic. These are only three of the opportunities that come back around to leadership and talent in a post COVID-19 world. For change to happen it needs to be led. The Senior Academic leader needed now and for the future is primarily agile and commercially focused. As the thoughts around reskilling existing university workforces are challenged and contemplation of the longer-term plan for how students are educated, the next question is: what does the University business model look like in a fundamentally disrupted world?



Our people...

Vikki Hartley
Principal & Education Practice Director, Mercer

Vikki Hartley
Principal & Education Practice Director, Mercer

Vikki is a Melbourne-based Principal at Mercer and Practice Director specialising in Talent Intelligence and Acquisition for the Higher Education sector. She collaborates with clients to ensure holistic solutions are positioned to solve critical talent challenges across the sector.

Over the last 15+ years, Vikki has gathered knowledge in multiple sectors on a national and international scale, collaborating with organisation leaders and supporting clients in both strategic and operational deliverables.

Vikki is well positioned to collaborate with the Education sector, providing advice and guidance on present and emerging agendas. 

Speak with a Mercer Consultant

To learn how Mercer can assist with your organisations Workforce & Talent Strategy complete the form below and a Mercer Consultant will be in contact with you.

*Required Fields