How La Trobe is changing with large lecture halls consigned to the past

University campuses will become more diverse, smaller, and more digital as face-to-face interactions decline.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

To say COVID-19 has had an impact on Australian universities is quite an understatement. As borders around the world went up during 2020, the rivers of money streaming into local campuses from international students dried up, with local students having to rapidly shift from traditional face-to-face learning to a new world of online interaction.

In June, Universities Australia pinned the cost of coronavirus to the tertiary education sector at AU$16 billion until 2023, with almost AU$5 billion pinned on 2020 alone.

For La Trobe University, these factors have translated to a 20% revenue drop across that period and a cutback on real estate usage by a quarter.

Rather than change direction, vice-chancellor and president of La Trobe University John Dewar told Cisco Live the university was accelerating its existing plans.

"A lot of the things that we are now doing, with things that we were planning to do before COVID came, it's just that we're now doing that much faster than we are the thought we would need to, or we might have been able to beforehand," Dewar said.

"We've had to pivot very quickly to delivering all of our courses online, which we did very successfully, and what we've learnt is that there's actually an enormous cultural acceptance of the use of technology in teaching and learning, much greater than there had been before the pandemic, but also that students welcome having the choice available to them as to how they study."

Another big shift has been La Trobe undertaking a digital transformation of its back office with Optus and Cisco.

"We have to transform digitally and we have to do it quickly -- primarily because to address that the revenue downturn, we have to remove costs from the organisation and the most effective way we can do that is to digitise as much of that work as possible, so that we can reduce the number of staff we need to do that work," he said.

Physically, the university is also changing, as it looks to find tenants for its now empty buildings on campus. Cisco has already committed to creating an innovation centre on campus.

"I think one thing we can say is that the era of the very large lecture has gone," the vice-chancellor said.

"Those very large lecture theatres, that you might remember from your days at university, are probably going to stand empty now until we find other things to do with them. I doubt whether they will ever make a return."

For students, Dewar predicts they will be on campus for interactions that work best face-to-face -- such as learning support, counselling, and careers advice -- while the amount of face-to-face learning drops.

"What we envisage is that our campus, or our campuses, will become much more diverse places where there's a university going on, but there's a lot of other stuff going on around it," he said.

Besides COVID-19, the other significant factor standing in the way of the tertiary sector is a government that is ideologically hostile to publicly funding the institutions, having passed legislation to squeeze universities and lift fees for some degrees already.

The result has been universities turning to industry to pick up the shortfall.

"We've always worked closely with industry, about two-thirds of our research income comes from industry partners, but this will intensify and become a much bigger part of what we do," Dewar said.

"It's becoming more challenging for universities to persuade governments to fund their activities, particularly activities like research, and working with industry is a fantastic way of not just amplifying the effects of university research, but also of funding some of those core activities.

"I think the future for the university sector will be very much one that's tied up with applied research, industry partnerships, and so on. We can't ignore the fundamental research, the more speculative research because often that's what provides the underpinning for the more applied work, but I think applied research will become even more important."

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