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Education Industry in Turmoil Or Just Evolving?


By John Mason

Principal, ACS Distance Education  

Whilst many parts of the higher education industry are in turmoil, this does not mean all of the industry is in decline as a whole. Some parts of the industry are experiencing rapid growth.

How then can the industry evolve as a whole to suit learners and employer demands?

The $20 billion dollars in educational exports that Australian universities bring in annually have been jepordised due to travel restrictions and classroom teaching shutdowns that we have seen in 2020 during the pandemic. There are other factors that have been troubling the higher education system before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

In the News

There have been many reports and negative newspaper articles that have emerged this year on higher and vocational education and the troubles the industry is experiencing. For example, The Guardian (Australia) had the following articles in August 2020:

  • TAFE system crumbling from neglect and policy vandalism report warns
  • University students who fail half of their first year courses could lose federal funding
  • University of Melbourne cuts 450 jobs due to projected losses of $1b over three years

From ABC News 18/8/20

  • University underpayment so rampant tutors ‘instructed to do a poor job’ to avoid unpaid hours, former staff say. – Ten Australian universities are now facing the issue of worker underpayment

From Campus Review August/July

  • AEU accuses productivity commission of putting profits above TAFE’s future
  • Australian Universities are in turmoil and that’s not good for VET

Note: Similar alarming reports are being seen in the UK, USA and many other countries.


To understand what is happening, let’s consider how things have changed in the wider world. 

  • Governments have budgetary demands today that simply did not exist in the past. Costs associated with health care, social welfare and fighting terrorism have all increased. To fund increasing costs, governments either need to increase taxes, or decrease spending elsewhere.
  • Colleges and universities have generated income from export education for decades; but having educated students from Asian and South American countries, many of the developing countries are now establishing their own local colleges and universities. Together with the impact of a global COVID pandemic, the demand for export education is diminishing.
  • Employer demand for degree educated staff is also decreasing. In the 1970’s when less people completed university degrees, the skills of a university graduate were in high demand and low supply. In contrast today, with so many more having a university education, those skills are in high supply and lower demand. Research shows employers seek knowledge, skills, experience and passion; but the need for a degree has diminished.
  • Change is faster than ever.  Large, long established institutions, and bureaucratic education systems are inherently slow to change, and are often just not adapting fast enough, given the time spent to implement policy change and adapt course content.
  • Traditional education  institutions have become white elephants.– Costly infrastructure (lecture rooms, laboratories, offices) were needed to deliver courses in the 20th century. The advent of technology has negated the need for such costs; allowing new more lightly funded institutions to emerge and be far more competitive.
  • Globalisation – In the past most people would attend colleges and universities close to home; today anyone can study online with any online college in any country. Cultures have blended, financial systems have become integrated
  • Politicisation – Education has become politicised in many countries. In the USA, Trump threatens withdrawing funding because universities are too left wing. In many countries, governments campaign on the basis of funding or changing education; but with little appreciation of what is causing problems nor how those problems might be attended to. Old, failing management and development systems are frequently funded and applied to review and change education. Governments are seen to allocate money, which bureaucrats spend over a year or two on studying a problem and recommending solutions; which are then funded a year later for action. The net result is often that changes are made in response to a problem, many years after the problem was identified.


There is no doubt that the need to learn will continue to be important, but where and how people learn is in a state of rapid change. There will continue to be opportunities to work in education, but the education industry may be morphing from an “education” industry, into a “learning” services industry.

Nature of Education

The scope and nature of the education industry is changing. Employer driven needs is driving, and the trends appear to be:

  • The importance of the qualification is decreasing as is the importance of formal accreditation systems.
  • Professional development is becoming more important – because of change, it is more important to keep updating learning. Professional and industry bodies are becoming more focussed on the provision of PD, and in some instances, not as focussed on foundation/entry level training.
  • Passion, experience and motivation are increasingly important factors
  • Educational offerings becoming diversified - Blended learning, online, telelearning, video, group training apprenticeships, PBL  - innovation and creative thinking are generating new approached constantly, some more successful than others.
  • Educational psychology and human motivation must be more of a factor in shaping the future of what education looks like in the future.

Changing Ownership

In the past, education was mostly owned and operated by public institutions. That has been changing. Independent private colleges have expanded their market share and also offered courses that larger institutions do not and in different modalities. Big tech & multinational companies have been entering the education market space and gaining a large market share. Small and medium size private institutions have been expanding market share but there has been a lot of volatility. This includes the thousands of private RTO’s in Australia have started up and closed down since 2000.


The education industry in is morphing into a more diverse “learning industry”. It is volatile, largely unpredictable, driven by a mixture of unethical opportunists focused on the short term, through to more ethical innovators; together with many well established institutions, some taking bold and sometimes successful steps to adapt to the volatility, together with others who are lost in the volatility and unable to adapt to the new and emerging world of education. Matching needs and demands of employers and businesses, will help shape what the “Learning Industry” will look like in the future.