The University of Newcastle, Australia

Chance favours the prepared

Thursday, 27 April 2017

With those glorious moments of ‘pomp and circumstance’ and the celebrations that accompany Graduations etched in our memories, the semester returns to full swing and it can seem as though life at the University will simply settle back into a predictable rhythm. However, most of us know that universities are bracing for what could be a bumpy ride as the 2017/2018 Federal Budget approaches.

While the final details will emerge on Budget night, a number of headline measures have been rehearsed which would impact universities and their students. Chief among these is a potential shift in the costs of study away from the Government and on to students.

At present, the Government funds approximately 60 per cent of the costs of study while students pay the remaining 40 percent via HELP loans. If the Government were to reduce its overall investment then students would have to make up the shortfall in increased fees. Students may also be required to begin paying back their HELP debt sooner, with the repayment threshold likely to be lowered. These measures are framed against the backdrop of a government imperative for ‘budget repair’. There are also signals that the Government is interested in whether there should be a change from a focus on funding student access to higher education to one which measures and funds student completions or graduate outcomes.

Understanding how such policy changes will impact the affordability and attractiveness of university study for students from all backgrounds will be key to universities such as our own. At UON we have to consider the needs of a diverse group of students, many of whom may be concerned about an increased cost of degrees or of the impact of accruing debt on family finances. While we know that job and career prospects are demonstrably better with a university degree than without one - it can be tough to invest in long term prospects when there are pressing financial challenges.

Currently the UON Executive is working to model the impacts of potential announcements on Budget night on our students and university. It is clear that the work we are doing to make our degree programs more attractive to students and their future employers, to increase the flexibility of the timing and size of courses from the ‘micro to the macro’ credential and to harness different delivery modes for different cohorts of students is timely and critical. Our new Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic), Professor Darrell Evans who joined us from Monash University this week, will be busy leading a program of transformational change for our curriculum, product development and program delivery, including step changes in our online education capacity.

It is also projected that an ‘efficiency dividend’ will be levied on all Commonwealth funding to universities, and current bets are on a decrease of at least 2-3% in our current funding. Also at risk may be the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program – a critical funding stream that supports students from low SES backgrounds to aspire to, participate and succeed in higher education.

So, the scale of change and associated challenges should not be underestimated, and there will be some difficult choices for universities in the months and years ahead. In this context the deep work that is being carried out to define and optimise our professional functions through the Organisational Design process provides an important foundation for knowing how we provide the professional support for a sustainable and high performing University.

In going forwards, we have built some ‘assets’ through strategic leadership and hard work. The increase of 50 places for UON in the world university rankings signals to families across the world that their son or daughter will benefit from a world class education at UON. Our strategic engagement in China has also been bolstered by the appointment of Ms Cher Jones as Inaugural Director, Institution Relations (Greater China). Cher joins us from the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet, where she was the Trade and Investment Commissioner and Senior Representative of the NSW Government for South China and Hong Kong, based in Guangzhou.

Good leadership is always critical in uncertain times and I am delighted that our two new Faculty PVCs – Professor Lee Smith and Professor Tony Travaglione - bring global expertise and substantial academic heft to their respective roles as leaders of the Faculty of Science and the Faculty of Business & Law.

It is also timely when competition for government research funding is increasing that we are building the capacity of academics across the institution to engage with business and industry partners through the appointment of Dr Sarah Pearson as our newly minted PVC (Industry Engagement and Innovation). The appointment of new Global Innovation Chairs in Cybersecurity; Data Networks, Clouds and Energy; Global Supply Chain Management; Social Conflict and Cohesion; and the History of Violence will also leverage UON’s disciplinary excellence into interdisciplinary education and research programs.

The remarkable work done to ensure that our NeW Space facility will open on time mid 2017 also represents a milestone for the development of a hub in Newcastle CBD for the delivery of next generation business, law and creative industry programs. Critically the superb design of NeW Space will facilitate greater collaboration between academics, business, industry and community partners. Planning is also underway for a new STEM+M Precinct on our Callaghan campus and the development of the Central Coast Health and Medical School and Research Institute in Gosford will position us well to deliver health professionals and world class research with our health partners to deliver better health care for the communities on the Coast.

It is often said that 'chance favours the prepared'. The hard work of staff across the institution should provide us with confidence in our ability to adapt, be resilient and maintain a focus on our mission and purpose - no matter what Budget night may bring.


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