How can Sydney educate 100M students by 2050? A look at future trends and opportunities for government and the education industry.

International education over the past 10 years has been an enormous success story for Australia, and nowhere more than Sydney. According to Study NSW, more than 260,000 onshore students, $13bn in exports, 95,000 jobs and double digit annual growth over the past 5 years.

So what will international education look like in 2050? How can Sydney benefit from and plan for these changes? At the City of Sydney and Study NSW International Education forum last week, the question was asked of myself and my fellow panellists including economists, scientists, entrepreneurs, students and human rights lawyers.

Panel L-R; Beau Leese Practera, Sean Stimson Redfern Legal Centre, Natasha Munasinghe, The Frank Team, Hugh Durrant Whyte NSW Chief Scientist & Engineer, Susana Ng City of Sydney, Ian Aird International Education Initiatives

What does the future of international education hold?

2050 is a long time, but not all that long – as far as today from 1990. Some things will be very different, but we’re not talking Starship Enterprise here. Among many, three key megatrends in evidence today will have a profound influence in the opportunities for international education. These are 1) the future of work, 2) global demographic & development shifts and 3) new technologies for work & learning.

The future of work is changing more rapidly than ever. Whether we accept that 47% of today’s jobs will disappear due to automation and other technologies, the world of work is changing. The average number of jobs in a given career is going up, and the lifespan of specific knowledge is going down. This means that 2 billion knowledge workers will need to upskill and reskill faster than ever before. Without taking anything away from the importance of foundational knowledge, in response education will become more personalised, modular, lifelong and experiential in nature. International education will be highly exposed to this trend, driven by student demand for an employability return on their education investment. The postgraduate, post work experience international education market will become more important. The human skills that complement increasing automation and are best taught experientially like creativity, problem solving and service orientation are more important.

Changing global demographic growth and economic development trends will reshape international education to 2050. Global student mobility will more than double grow from 5m to 10m annually. With the development of domestic higher education systems, China, developed East Asia and India student export growth will slow but with large absolute populations of 15-24 year olds and growing middle classes still account for the bulk of growth to 2027. Developing economies in South Asia & West Asia will provide important growth markets around this period, and by 2050 Africa is projected to be the high growth international education market, with 35% of young people aged 15-24 globally. One of the big challenges and opportunities for Australia will be that the vast bulk of students will continue to study and work at home, with increasingly sophisticated domestic economies and higher education systems providing competition for onshore students.

New technologies used for work & learning. Not all learning will be virtual – students will still value personal connections with professors and peers, but new technologies will be integrated into the educational mix, and a higher proportion of learning will be purely online. For those readers whose memories stretch far enough, think of the difference of the daily use of technology between 1990 and now in the workplace and higher ed. Expect pervasive applications of technologies including AI + machine learning, VR / AR, blockchain based credentialing, and later on human-machine interface. With all students firmly digital and mobile native, platform distribution means that awesome and highly personalised programs and solutions for specific niches can be distributed globally, generating economies of specialisation and scale. Just like physical goods supply chains – services and software supply chains will become truly global, where a great lecture, an industry project, a predictive algorithm can be deployed as easily in Dalian or Tanzania as Haymarket.

What can Sydney do to seize opportunity in this future?

Much of the discussion was framed around the onshore student experience, with the implication that growth will require a lot of urban planning and debates about who is congesting the buses. While this is undoubtedly the case, there is an aspect which is underplayed – the opportunity and the benefit of education technology and offshore delivery.

Sydney isn’t just part of Australia. Unique among Australian cities it occupies a privileged position as a global destination city, as part of a network of 20-30 truly global cities which concentrate the worlds human capital, creativity, economic growth and job creation to a degree unprecedented in human history. It enjoys a comparative advantage that other Australian jurisdictions do not.

Beyond fostering continued strong growth in onshore enrolments, Sydney education providers have a phenomenal opportunity to leverage the cities brand, institutions and strengths to facilitate exponential growth in delivering educational products, programs, credentials and expertise offshore and transnationally.

As learning and work become ever more digitally enabled, education providers in all industry sectors can adopt and adapt education technology to co-create new and potentially disruptive models building on world class brands, expertise and IP. One of the great potential enablers of this is a thriving local edtech sector. Of >350 edtechs in Australia, approximately 150 are based here in Sydney, according to EduGrowth and Austrade. The 2018 Startup Muster report demonstrated that more than 1/3 of startup founders are born overseas, including many international students. Edtech is the second largest industry vertical for tech startups. Examples of scaleup stage edtech companies that have raised significant capital and gained international traction in specific niches include Open Learning in Massive Online Open Course platform, Go One in corporate training, Smart Sparrow in adaptive learning, Learnosity in assessments and Practera in experiential learning.

As an example, Practera has worked with Study NSW and 10 NSW Universities to develop the NSW Global Scope program, which connects thousands of international students in digitally enabled projects with hundreds of Government, business + community organisations to solve real problems. This model is informing our collaboration with Northeastern University in the US to design a projects program with the capacity to serve >100,000 community college students in Masachussets. Boston University is using the platform to manage health development projects in 17 developing countries. 

‘Experiential learning’ is rapidly evolving as key response to educational needs and models like these could deliver a broader economic & social dividend for Sydney. For example students, educators and industry from Sydney and global cities can be connected today through high-impact and high-quality online projects and accelerators. Transnational experiential learning brings an unfair share of the worlds human capital into building opportunity with Sydney institutions, industries and students. This initiative alone would promote connection and innovation through facilitating collaboration between Higher Education and business on which Australia ranks poorly on a global basis. It would promote the development of more global connections and collaborations for Sydney. It would promote a more just and sustainable city through offering industry experience and connections to many more students, including from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Government has a key role to play in facilitating initiatives like this, in bringing actors together and providing the brands, seed funding, license to operate and connections required to facilitate large scale cross sector collaboration.

More systematically, across the many niches and opportunities of a world of education that is more modular, experiential and lifelong, a city like Sydney can ask itself the question – not can we handle half a million international students in our city, but can we educate 100 million learners globally?

About the author

Beau Leese is Co-Founder & Co-Chief Executive Officer of Practera

Remarks adapted from City of Sydney / Study NSW International Education Forum 2019

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