Date posted: 11/10/2017 5 min read

How Australian universities must change in a digital world

A recent world study tour aims to bridge the gap between industry and university business schools.

In Brief

  • Universities are facing digital disruption.
  • The 2017 CA ANZ Thought Leadership Forum aims to bring together the worlds of industry and universities.
  • A study tour to Israel and Sweden will yield insights.

Universities around the world are facing digital disruption. Australian universities too, face this challenge. They are grappling with a new business model in education and with how to demonstrate their value when the very nature of education is changing. 

To survive, universities must adapt. Not only because education is a significant export market for Australia, but because knowledge – the essential element of education – is at the centre of the seismic shift we are experiencing regarding technology, work and learning. Embracing innovation is considered crucial to delivering future prosperity. 

Universities are uniquely positioned to lead innovation. They are where new ideas are dreamed up, where young minds are shaped, where bold new experiments lead to invention. Frequently universities and industry are worlds apart.


I believe business schools have significant expertise in research, but they are often disconnected from the challenges facing industry and the public sector.
James Guthrie Head of Academic Relations at Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand


How to bring these worlds together is the subject of the 2017 CA ANZ Thought Leadership Forum, held in conjunction with RMIT University in Melbourne and the subsequent Academic Leadership Series.

In Australia, higher education invests billions of dollars in research and has a capable workforce supported by skills, knowledge and infrastructure. I believe business schools have significant expertise in research, but they are often disconnected from the challenges facing industry and the public sector.

I took part in a recent study tour which aims to foster greater understanding of how to bridge the gap. The tour focused on Israel and Sweden, two leading nations in innovation. The 17 senior executives from 13 universities across Australia brought back lessons that can be applied in Australia.

“Despite their geographic distance, Australia and Sweden have much in common,” says Jonathan Kenna, the Australian Ambassador to Sweden. “Both countries recognise that past economic success is no guarantee of future performance. Both understand that capturing opportunities in a digital world will depend on our ability to innovate and be entrepreneurial. The role of universities has never been more important.”

These thoughts are echoed by Leon Kempler, National Chairman of the Australia–Israel Chamber of Commerce: “Universities are pivotal to the future of both Australia and Israel. As innovation economies, the capacity to create, disseminate and commercialise knowledge and technology is critical.”  

Collaboration is changing

In both countries, universities have longstanding relationships with industry, but how they collaborate is changing. Now there are more likely to be fewer university–industry partnerships, but these relationships are deeper. This is because, over time, the key concepts underpinning successful collaboration have come to the fore. The most important of these is trust.

Developing deeper relationships also facilitates developing mutual experience and openness, in which knowledge transfer and sharing are achievable and productive.

Ultimately this trust and transparency creates tangible value-creating outcomes, such as joint development of IP and joint ventures.

Drawing on Israel and Sweden’s experiences, Australia has much to learn. While the National Innovation and Science Agenda is a framework to guide building innovation capacity, the examples observed on the study tour showcase innovation in action.

Universities need to provide the graduate with capabilities necessary for the jobs of the future. Rather than technical skills, these are an entrepreneurial mindset and the ability to connect and understand knowledge flows. In a rapidly changing world, a commitment to lifelong learning is essential.

Continuous learning is not only necessary for individuals but universities and business. They too must think entrepreneurially and embrace change, building structural capabilities. And these capabilities must be enabled, allowing organisations to be agile.

A new approach to investment

Digital disruption means that universities and industry must work co-operatively, including in their approach to investment, shifting the relationship from one of donor-recipient to collaborators in every sense. If universities also think of students as partners, then they must reflect on how value is created for everyone in the relationship.

An interesting case study for those on tour is the success of the Stockholm School of Entrepreneurship. The School’s philosophy is that entrepreneurship is most likely learned within a discipline. In other words, students augment their study in a particular field with non-accredited courses in presentation and negotiation skills, search engine optimisation and creative leadership.

It’s a cliché to say that with challenges come opportunities, but it’s also a reality. There is much to learn for Australian universities in observing the experiences of Israel and Sweden when faced with the challenges of digital disruption. The question now is: how will Australia embrace the opportunities that stem from the inevitable challenges?

James Guthrie is Head of Academic Relations at Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand.