As universities across Australia scramble to switch to online delivery and cater to a growing number of unemployed professionals, UNE is building on distance education expertise perfected over the past 65 years, according to UNE Pro Vice-Chancellor (Academic Innovation) Professor Jonathan Powles.
"UNE has a long and proud history of online delivery, and as pioneers of Bespoke Courses in Australia we are well positioned to respond to immediate needs," he says. "UNE recognised two years ago that higher education had to be more responsive. That equipping students for a rapidly changing and uncertain future wasn't about strict calendars and mandatory units. It was about enabling students to tailor degrees to their individual requirements."
But even the trailblazing developers of UNE's popular Bespoke Graduate Certificate in Professional Practice could not have foreshadowed what lay ahead.
"We could see that the world of work was becoming an increasingly unpredictable place, that students needed to future-proof their careers and safeguard against threats posed by artificial intelligence, automation and other unexpected black swan events," says Professor Powles. "But, literally overnight, the way we work and what we do has been irrevocably changed. Record unemployment as a result of the pandemic has forced many professionals to move to either add new skills or retrain entirely."
Enquiries in recent weeks have soared for short UNE degrees that allow students to upskill in areas like health management, healthcare, online education, IT and digital security.
"Interest in our Bespoke Graduate Certificate in Professional Practice has spiked," says Professor Powles. "Wherever potential students are, they don't have the time or money to commit to a full Masters degree. They want to capitalise on the skills and expertise they already possess, so they can pivot to take advantage of emerging opportunities. They want the freedom to focus only on those subjects that will enhance their career prospects right now, and the Bespoke Graduate Certificate does that. It broke the mould in terms of university practice."
More than 130 people have completed or are enrolled in the Graduate Certificate at UNE. The ability to choose all three electives and mix and match units from across disciplines to develop the knowledge of most value to them, right now, is one of its most attractive features. "In as little as six months full-time or 12 months part-time students can acquire a fully accredited university qualification, and be ready for the next stage in their career," Professor Powles says. "And, importantly, we appoint a careers advisor to every student, to help tailor the package of units to their precise ambitions and needs.
"Rather than we as a university dictating to students what they must study, we ask the student where they want to be in five years' time in their career. What kinds of career advantages are they looking to get? We put the student in charge of their education."
Even before COVID-19, UNE had more online students as a percentage than any other Australian university, so the Bespoke Graduate Certificate leverages off the university's existing strengths. "Having pioneered distance learning in the 1950s, we understand that it's not just about making content available on another platform; it relies on developing relationships and providing support for students who are juggling all of life's myriad challenges," Professor Powles says.
"The fantastic thing about UNE's Bespoke Courses is that students can literally start tomorrow. Our units are not delivered according to an arbitrary calendar the university imposes. We ensure the core unit, about mapping your professional future, is available year-round. In this current crisis, people who are cooped up and want to move on with their professional development can make an immediate start."
Different times call for different study options, Professor Powles says, and many students need an alternative to traditional degrees in favour of short, practical offerings they can individualise.
"UNE turned upside down the concept of a degree, and our Bespoke Courses are now highly relevant in a world turned upside down by coronavirus," he says. "While we didn't predict the pandemic, we were thinking about workplace disruption when we developed the Bespoke Graduate Certificate in Professional Practice, so its agile and flexible structure is now coming into its own."