Interview with Stephen Weller

What will universities look like in a post-pandemic world?

By Mike Lanzing, General Manager UniBank

There is little doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted Australia’s university sector across many levels. The question posed by many now is ‘where to from here?’ for our educational institutions that have, until recently, relied on traditional ways of educating.

In this three-part series, UniBank General Manager, Mike Lanzing, speaks with leaders from universities across the country to understand the biggest impacts they have felt during the COVID-19 pandemic, asking them: will universities ever look the same?



Stephen Weller, Chief Operating Officer and Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Australian Catholic University 

Balancing the demand for quality online delivery with students’ desire for an on-campus experience will be a key challenge for universities in the post COVID-19 pandemic world, says Stephen Weller, Chief Operating Officer and Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Australian Catholic University.

“The entire university sector moved lectures online very quickly and many of these lectures have remained online because their delivery has vastly improved. But I think it’s going to take us some time to work out what the campus experience of the future will look like,” said Stephen.

While there is little doubt COVID-19 will have a profound impact on universities in the future, Stephen believes some aspects will remain the same. 

“I think the way we deliver content will certainly change, and if it’s not state of the art, students will vote with their feet and go elsewhere. But I think the idea of ‘the university’ being a place where people go to for knowledge and qualifications, will not change.

“We always talk about the on-campus experience – things like rolling lawns, grand buildings, cafés, coffee shops and gyms. In the latest Course Experience Questionnaire students told us that these things are still very important to them. So, while they want and expect some level of digital delivery, they also want to make friends, socialise in cafes and cars, lay on lawns and contemplate, especially school-leavers,” Stephen said. 

Stephen said like other organisations, the staff experience within universities will also play a role in defining the future.

“Now that remote or hybrid working has become both desirable and possible, this could impact the physical footprint of campuses. Will we need to sell or lease buildings, and will this impact the on-campus experience? I don’t think universities know what that mix looks like yet.”

The impact of COVID-19 on Australian Catholic University was very similar to those reported by others. There was the rapid move of 35,000 students to online learning and the logistics of enabling more than 2,500 staff and 5,000 sessional staff to remotely work. Revenue was also negatively impacted from a decline in international students and the additional costs associated with cleaning and security.

“There was a fourth impact that perhaps affected us more than other universities: the logistics of operating universities across multiple jurisdictions with different rules or responses to localised outbreaks.

“For example, there have been times when our Brisbane campus has been open, with no requirements for students to wear masks or be vaccinated, while in other locations students have been required to wear masks and be vaccinated. 

“That variance even happened within states. For example, in New South Wales our campus in Blacktown was impacted when that suburb became a Local Government Area of concern, so we had to develop different arrangements for those students, compared to students and staff in North Sydney and Strathfield. 

“While coming out of lockdowns is easier than going into lockdown, opening back up has been challenged by accelerated plans. For example, the four-meter requirement was quickly changed to two meters. The sheer logistics of managing COVID-19 can’t be underestimated,” Stephen said.

Stephen believes that COVID-19 has confirmed things that perhaps the university sector already knew.  

“For students, it has confirmed that there are some things that we can do well online, such as lectures, but there are still some things that you can only do in person. We have many nursing and teaching students and while technology can enhance their experience, there are still some things like, learning to take a pulse or observing children in a classroom that can only happen in person.

“COVID-19 also confirmed to us that the Australian university sector is heavily dependent on international students, with some universities overly dependent on single countries. This will lead them to rethink their exposure.

“But I have no doubt that international education will thrive again; it was Australia’s third largest export and will probably become the second largest. Having one in five students at an Australian university from overseas is good for Australian students, good for international students and good for Australia’s reputation and economy,” said Stephen.

“The sustainability of the sector will be strengthened from having gone through this.”

Stephen Weller, Chief Operating Officer and Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Australian Catholic University