Issue 1 | Article 10


As the 4th industrial age impacts all of society and institutions, the accelerator that is COVID has brought this change more into focus. Higher education is one such institution which will continue to go through major change. Technology, ICT infrastructure and acceptance and expectation of younger generations of a new way of interacting at higher learning will drive the transformation. This paper sets out the three areas that higher education providers must be aware of: student learning experience, integration of management systems, and staff and student cultural change.

We are entering the fourth industrial age. The first industrial age commenced in the late 18th century with the advent of steam power and mechanical production equipment. The second industrial age from the late 19th century came with the introduction of electricity, mass production and the division of labour. The third industrial age came in the second half of the 20th century with electronics, information technology and automated production (Schwab, 2017).

The fourth industrial age is characterized by artificial intelligence, robotics, service delivery automation and machine learning driven by big data having major impacts across all areas of society (Qiang, 2018). This age of industrial development has built on the previous stages and is particularly reliant on the technology and infrastructure of the third age. It “can be described as the advent of cyber-physical systems involving entirely new capabilities for people and machines … the Fourth Industrial Revolution represents entirely new ways in which technology becomes embedded within societies.” (Davis, 2016).

COVID19 has been called the great accelerator (Bradley et al, 2020). The whole world has had to adapt and move quickly with many long-term trends, social movements and institutional changes happening at a much quicker pace than could have been imagined before 2020. One institution that had previously been slow to change but has been greatly impacted is higher education. It is technology, ICT infrastructure and generational change of the acceptance and expectation of a new way of interaction at higher learning that will continue to drive this change in higher-educational institutions.

To enable this change and take advantage of the opportunities being presented in the 4th industrial age, higher-education providers must be cognizant of and plan across three main areas:

  1. Optimizing the student learning experience.
  2. Integrating management systems across the student learning journey.
  3. Ensuring that staff embrace the cultural change and develop skills and capabilities while embedding automation and technology within the organisation,.

Optimizing the Student Learning Experience
There is no ‘one size fits all’ in the delivery of higher education. As more students enter higher education as digital natives, their expectation and acceptance of the digital interface will be more pervasive. First and foremost is a focus on the student learning experience, which involves an understanding of the various learning styles, cultural backgrounds, motivations for learning, student’s capacity for learning and level of engagement with the subject material.

Integrating management systems across the student learning journey
To ensure that there is a focus on the learning experience, the student learning journey must be understood throughout the students’ contact with the organisation. The relationship with the student changes throughout the student journey and must be catered for. To gain this understanding and capture data to inform decisions, management systems must be designed for the characteristics of the student/provider interaction. These systems are:

  • Prospective student - customer relationship management system.
  • Admissions and student performance - student management system.
  • Student support - Contact management system.
  • Learning environment - Learning management system.
  • Post-graduation - alumni and industry partnership management system.

The success of the student learning journey is dependent on the seamless student interaction with the provider as they move through the various stages.

Staff cultural change
A higher education provider cannot simply focus on developing the skills and capabilities needed to design, develop, deploy and maintain the introduction of new technologies and systems. As automation, bots and artificial intelligence are introduced, higher education providers will need to redesign worker roles, assigning some to staff, others to machines, and still others to a hybrid model in which technology augments and supports human performance.

The term ‘no-collar workers’ has been used to describe the range of virtual workers, cognitive agents, bots, and other AI-driven capabilities (Deloittes, 2018). There has been much written about the vocations that may be replaced during this time of change. Studies that have been replicated across the USA, UK and Australia indicate that there is a high probability that at least 40% of existing jobs will be replaced by automation during the next 10 years (CEDA, 2015). Higher education is one industry where automation will have a large impact on all types of work across all roles.

Rather than viewing the advent of the 4th Industrial Age as a threat to jobs, the higher education provider must take staff with them along the journey of changes. This will involve highlighting that the no-collar workers complement the collar workers, improve work practices and provide a higher level of student experience. Having a clear vision of what the future of a higher education provider will be in the 4th Industrial Age and communicating this clearly and regularly to staff will ensure that all are on board with the cultural change that is occurring.


  • Bradley C, Hirt, M, Hudson S, Northcote N, Smit S (2020) The Great Acceleration Viewed 2nd April 2021.
  • CEDA (2015). Australia’s Future Workforce. Viewed 30th March 2021.
  • Davis N (2016). What is the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
    Viewed 29th March 2021.
  • Deloittes (2018). No-collar workforce: Humans and machines in one loop— collaborating in roles and new talent models. Viewed 31st March 2021.
  • Qiang (2018) The Fourth Revolution, Viewed 31st March 2021.
  • Schwab, K (2017) The Fourth Industrial Revolution. Penguin UK, Great Britain.

Andrew is Dean of the Universal Business School Sydney (UBSS) and Provost of the Blended Campus. Formerly, he was Director of the Centre for Entrepreneurship at UBSS. Andrew has worked in academia for 14 years, following a successful 10-year career an entrepreneur and business owner/manager.
He holds a Bachelor of Commerce (Accounting) degree from Macquarie University and a Master of Business Administration and a Doctor of Business Administration degrees from Newcastle University. His research output includes 12 peer-reviewed journal articles and numerous conference papers. Andrew continues to carry out research in the areas of marketing (especially of sophisticated technologies) and higher education (including workplace integrated learning).