The University of Newcastle, Australia

Navigating a New World

Friday, 18 November 2016

I don’t know about you, but I think this has been a pretty odd year - perhaps one of the oddest years on record.

We watched in disbelief as the UK woke up after the Brexit vote to the dawning realisation that neither Boris Johnson nor any other leading politician actually had a Brexit plan. We then had to withstand the endurance test of the US Presidential election, the shock waves of its seismic outcome and the fact that we were more worried that President-elect Trump might actually have a plan, than that he might not.

Against this backdrop, the world of universities and the familiar day to day work of delivering great education and research might seem more certain, less volatile than the geopolitical landscape – and yet it is not.  Automated voice delivery systems became online student advisors, Micro Masters popped up as the ‘next gen’ MOOCs and most major IT companies seemed to be clear that with a good educational delivery platform and global reach they can ‘eat our lunch’. Or can they?

Universities have repeatedly shown the capacity to change and adapt to most challenges and to do so well. While the number of Australian students in our universities has surged in the past 5 years as the demand driven system has allowed more bright people to study and graduate, this has occurred in parallel with good student satisfaction scores, increased numbers of quality research outputs and greater engagement with community and business partners. Importantly, more Australians from diverse backgrounds have been able to access university – particularly our university. But after the surge in student numbers experienced in the early days of the demand driven system, demand has now been well absorbed and growth in student enrolments has slowed.

Universities are now having to juggle the impact of growth rates in costs which were built in during the early days of the demand driven system and the lower growth rates in their revenue. Listening to Minister Birmingham at the AFR Higher Education Summit this week, it is clear that the government is juggling with the same equation and we know that families across the regions we serve are also finding their budget difficult to juggle as jobs and industries change.

So how will we continue to change and adapt to ensure we are in the group of universities, not afraid to experiment with new approaches in education and research while keeping a focus on providing a great experience for our students, recognising this will occur in online, blended or face to face environments? How can we ensure that we build our network of external partners across our Global Impact Clusters so academics in different fields across UON can collaborate and build strong platforms of interdisciplinary or ‘convergent’ research?

There are new options for academics in a world where research might address burgeoning health care costs, develop new energy sources, lead to the bioprinting of new tissues or creation of designs for ‘soft’ flexible robots and smart living spaces which monitor our health. For those not so sure that this is research, rather than science fiction, the Convergence Report from MIT is a thought provoking read.

So against this backdrop we are taking the opportunity to consider how we might deliver professional support in existing and emerging areas to our academic enterprise to take account of the need for speed, innovation and the ability to flex delivery of support to areas of growth.  Senior leaders across UON are engaging with their staff and given the sheer ‘busyness’ at this end of the year, we have engaged Partners in Performance (PIP) to work with leaders and staff on a review of our support functions across the institution across the next few months. We have been delighted at the calibre of professional staff that have been attracted to or retained in the university and there is a great pool of leadership and ‘know how’ to draw on and harness from our professional staff.

We are naturally wary of ‘off the shelf’ solutions and have asked that our leaders work with PIP to inform and help design new approaches where appropriate. PIP’s work will be overseen by a UON Steering Committee and supported by a UON Project Team. Directors and Heads of School will work with their professional and academic staff to make sure we address any ‘live’ issues in our service delivery.  PVCs, Heads of Schools, Directors and Unit leaders have been communicating about this work with staff this week and will let you know of the opportunities to have input and to engage on progress and key milestones.

We do not have the option of taking the Boris Johnson approach of being surprised  to find a new future has arrived and that we are ‘plan less’ and we do not have the option to build a wall- or even fencing - to keep those pesky new technologies and new disciplines outside our borders. How we harness our academic and professional foresight to guide sustainable responses to step changes will be a work in progress but collaboration and courage are hall marks of UON – and our students and communities deserve our very best efforts on their behalf.


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