The biggest threat to universities isn’t competition within the higher education sector, it’s staying relevant to its students.

That’s the view of Angelo Kourtis, President People & Advancement, at Western Sydney University (WSU), who argues many young people are questioning the value of a university.

When asked by his board of trustees to nominate WSU’s top competitors he did not name one university, Kourtis told Which-50 between sessions at the Adobe Symposium last week.

“I think our competitors are Google, Microsoft and the major corporates who are fighting for the same talent we are,” Kourtis said.

“Quite often they are developing propositions that are much more compelling than us; offering credentials in a much shorter timeframe, much cheaper and with a prospect of a job at the end. When you are a young person looking at a four-year commitment, potentially handing over $60,000 or $70,000 versus a proposition that’s exciting, compelling, global and with a qualification that is recognised by industry.”

From a marketing and strategic position WSU, or Western as it now likes to be known, decided to differentiate itself from its corporate competition and return to the founding origins of what it means to be a university.

“I don’t believe universities prepare students for working in the world. What we do prepare students for is life, complexity and critical thinking. That’s what we should be focusing on because that’s what corporations are asking for,” Kourtis said.

Universities should focus on higher cognitive skills that are difficult to teach” such as creativity, innovation and empathy, he said.

Data driving course design

WSU is moving away promoting its courses along faculty lines to broader ideas that it’s calling “meta-themes” in a bid to appeal to the citizen scholar. To make the transition, the university is using data to determine the lifecycle of a course based on enrollment, student satisfaction, and demands of professions and the community.

“We recognise that courses have a beginning, a peak and at some point have an end,” Kourtis said.

“Traditionally, academics develop courses with the expectation that they live forever and of course, they don’t, nothing lives forever. What we want to do is put a framework around this so we can help the transition of courses when they move to the next stage of their life. This is where technology will help us.”

WSU is using the Adobe platform to conduct A/B tests on content and provide feedback to faculties. Google search data is also benign used to explore new course possibilities, Kourtis said.

Evidence-based decision-making enabled by technology also helps the marketers tell academics if they have an “ugly baby.”

“One of the challenges marketers have is how do we call the baby ugly? Most of the deans have babies that are ugly and because they believe in their products so passionately they’re not willing to look at the evidence. Quite often it’s hard to gather that evidence.”

The course redesign is part of a broader rebrand and digital transformation project for the university, including digitising the student experience and business processes.

Smart Campus

Analytics will also play a role in monitoring usage of the university’s physical assets.

Western Sydney University recently opened its $220.5 million flagship campus in the Parramatta CBD which is “infused with technology” to enable way-finding and analytics to understand how students are using the building.

The campus has abandoned traditional lecture theatres in favour of smaller spaces such as group study rooms with screen sharing and video conferencing.

“We’ve got these little learning pods where students actually collaborate with each other almost in an agile way,” Kourtis said.

“That speaks to the changing nature of the workforce. We want to produce graduates who understand the idea of collaboration and working in agile teams. That’s how we’ve designed our new learning strategy, our new teaching strategy, especially in that campus.”

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