Universities and sports share some commonalities: they have been around a long time, are essentially conservative, are of enormous benefit to young people and yet treasure the wisdom of the old, are part of our cultural heritage, people have strong opinions about them, and, whether they like it or not, both have to be managed efficiently and effectively to ensure future success.

(On the other hand, you are unlikely to see slow-motion replays of a research experiment on the evening news: “So, Ian, let’s have another look on Spidercam at Professor Grimes’s wrist action on the test tube shake.”)

What sport excels at, however, is constant adaptation, forever fine-tuning and tweaking in the ferocious battle for the attention of crowds, eyeballs glued to the TV, and ears fixed to the radio.

 As the ever-insightful writer Ed Smith has noted in his columns on Cricinfo

“… professional sport, casting its net ever wider in the search for competitive advantage, has embraced many new disciplines … Mathematics, statistics, physiology, nutrition and psychology have all influenced sport.

Sport administrators, often facing fierce resistance from players (Higher ed managers: sound familiar?) are forced to make their sport more appealing to new generations of fans brought up in a world where change is a constant, attention spans fickle, and demands on their time more urgent.

Ed Smith again: “When the back pass was making football boring, it was made illegal. When big servers were killing the spectacle at Wimbledon, the balls were made 10% slower to give returners a chance…

It was the introduction of radio coverage, against hostile resistance, says Smith, which helped to transform baseball into America’s national pastime.

The most stunning sporting tweak or adaptation in recent times is Twenty-20 cricket.

Huge crowds have flocked this season to see games in Australia’s Big Bash League – now in the top 10 most attended sports leagues in the world. Recently, organisers were stunned (in a happy way) when a record 80,883 fans came to the MCG for the Stars v Renegades clash.

The Indian Premier League is watched on the sub continent by millions (if not billions), became the first sporting event to be broadcast live on YouTube, and is said to have contributed $US170 million to the Indian economy in 2015. The IPL is creative disruption in action.

To be sure, five-day Test cricket struggles to attract big crowds in parts of the world, but even so innovative pink ball day-night tests could well see popularity re-ignited. Note also that Twenty-20 cricket is a tweak of a tweak, so to speak – one day cricket, usually 50 overs per side, was launched in Australia in 1969-70 and, with one or two hiccups, has prospered thanks to constant fine-tuning.

What we see in sport is evolutionary innovation, brought about by incremental fine-tuning and tweaking. It is not without risk – change itself is not a guarantee of success.

Adaptation brought about by paying deep attention to the needs of fans – the customers, if you like – and careful analysis of the sport’s place in its society, and how that society is developing itself – are, however, more likely to succeed. What cricket administrators have done is to offer fans the ability to choose what they want to see – what meets their needs at any given time. They have utilised modern technology including advanced camera techniques, the Umpire Decision Review System and Snicko to name just a few.

Higher education can learn from sport, first up, by striving to understand the ever-shifting needs of students and analyzsng what they can do to meet them, adapting and fine-tuning where needed (which is not to say universities don’t do this, but do they do it quickly enough?) The evolving demands of employers also have to considered – is there more call for work-ready graduates and how do they rate students who have work experience? An important lesson is the necessity for choice and flexibility in offerings. 

Some examples of creative, adaptive evolution in higher education include

  • Charles Sturt University’s excellent new Bachelor of Technology/Master of Engineering, which has been designed to “meet industry’s demand for entrepreneurial engineers who can make a difference in their communities”. The Engineering School is hosted within the Business Faculty so that as well as learning how to be excellent engineers students are also taught communications, financial and management skills – an obvious practical advantage in a competitive work space. Another standout is that while student engineers begin by studying at the Bathurst Campus for 1.5 years, after that their education continues as paid employees in industry, studying the theoretical curriculum online.


The above are just a few examples, and there will be many more. The lesson is that, like sport, higher education is part of its society, is subject to that society’s demands, and cannot live in the past: innovate or stagnate.

Incremental innovation will benefit students and employers, boost a university’s profile while at the same time contributing to the cause of education.

Adaptive change has worked in sport. Is there a reason why it can’t work in higher education?

– DM