The University of Newcastle, Australia

Organisational Design

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

We are all aware of the major shifts taking place in higher education. When many of our current students were in primary school, not many of their parents were thinking of how education would prepare their daughters or sons for jobs in creative industries, drone design, data science, cybersecurity or technology-assisted health care.  Not all academics starting their first job in a university twenty years ago would have foreshadowed how critical interdisciplinary education and research would become for the graduates of the future, how digital literacy and analytics would change learning, and how courses could become both massive and micro.

As an institution we laid out our responses to these and other changes in our decadal NeW Futures Strategic Plan 2016-2025.  We recognised that meeting the future needs of students from our regions and across the globe, and delivering research that makes a positive change to our world – whether that is through a better understanding of Shakespeare or of robotics - defines a place of higher education which remains vibrant, relevant and sustainable.

Just as the academic profession goes through changes – so too do the professional areas which are critical to the effective functioning of all institutions, including universities. No IT department looks the same in 2017 as it did in 1997, and human resources professionals focus more on the art and science of attraction, development and retention of talented staff than they do on pay slips and transactional functions. The professional skill sets required to deliver a NeW Space in the heart of the CBD are ones that are at the highest level in infrastructure management, design, finance, procurement, project management, technology - and the list goes on.

Some of these skills will be sourced in-house; some will not be, as it is not likely we will build a NeW Space every year. Against this backdrop of global, technological, professional and social change there is a risk that changes in any work place are characterised as resulting in ‘change fatigue’. But there is a price for industries, cities and institutions who do not respond to some of the most pressing changes in their environment. Not many of us pick up a newspaper each morning, not many of us go into a bank and not many of us may go down to the shopping mall to buy – well, almost anything anymore.

And as we stand as a world-class university with a clear value proposition for each of our students, we also have to navigate the churn of government policy.  As everyone is aware the most recent Federal Budget included an 'efficiency dividend’, aka ‘funding cut’, of 2.5 per cent for each of 2018 and 2019 for every university. This is a cut that will reduce UON revenue by around $10 million per year, every year from 2019 - or perhaps a more stark way of putting this is that our government funding will decrease by $100 million between 2019 and 2029.  The Budget also introduced measures that would make 7.5 per cent of UON’s funding dependent on meeting government-set performance criteria around areas such as admissions transparency, financial reporting and graduate outcomes.

While this is a tough budget, through good planning and discipline UON enters this next phase with a tight underlying 5.2 per cent ‘operating surplus’. For those for whom surpluses sound like excess funds that universities don’t use – I really commend the article by Mark Warburton in The Conversation that demystifies what surpluses mean for universities as not for profit organisations, and which really provides a crisp rebuttal to claims universities can withstand further cuts because they are awash with funds.

So against a backdrop of confidence in our university, in the quality of our staff and in our ability to educate some of the best graduates in Australia and the world, we are committed to meeting some of the challenges of improving our organisation design through a consultative, co-design approach. If we want to provide services to our Faculties - then we need to consult our Faculties. If we want next generation financial services then we need to ask those who are at the forefront of what financial services will look like in the future for large, complex organisations. If we want to ensure great students know about us and come to our university then we ask marketing professionals and our prospective students what they want to know when they make a major financial decision to study with us.

The detailed diagnostic and design work undertaken by leaders in the past six months in the Organisational Design Project (ODP) has placed us in a strong position, and the first of the outcomes from this work – focused on business service functions - has now been completed.   Earlier today, Heads of School and Directors across UON met with their staff to discuss the initial outcomes of the  ODP.

Outcomes from ODP – commencing 1 June 2017

Eight of our business service functions - Marketing and Communications, Human Resources, Finance, Infrastructure and Facilities Services, Office of Alumni and Philanthropy, Strategy, Planning and Performance, Research and Innovation, and Assurance and Legal Services – work through those changes they have identified  to enhance systems and practices, remove duplication and support better collaboration on University-wide priorities.

One key decision has been to increase our marketing investment through consolidating our university wide marketing efforts in our central Marketing & Communications function. It is the case that we have underinvested in marketing capacity and capability and that we need to have a better understanding of our markets and strategies for student recruitment.

These proposals will deliver net salary cost savings of $3 million for UON across these eight functions, and the savings will be realised by the end of 2018. This will see a net reduction of approximately 30 professional staff from these areas, which is a difficult outcome for the University. It is hoped that a number of these reductions will be realised through natural attrition and not filling some currently vacant positions.

Next steps

For the eight business service areas identified today, the timeline and process for formal consultation and implementation will depend on the scope and scale of the changes proposed. It is important to note that these change processes will be staggered from June 2017 to reduce the impact on staff and support the continuity of business. Leaders will speak with their staff to let them know the process and timelines for the specific change.

For our student-facing areas in the Academic Division, International and Advancement Division, IT Services, and the Faculties, the DVC Academic, together with senior leaders from these areas, will continue to lead an ongoing joint design process. These areas will work together to create processes and structures that encompass the full student journey, learning support and engagement. This process will also look at how we manage and develop our portfolio of academic programs to ensure we are competitive and that our programs meet those changing needs of our students and employers.

It is important this complex project has a quality outcome, rather than a quick outcome. We expect the final outcomes and the changes resulting from this work will be announced toward the end of 2017.

Communication and consultation

Leaders across the University will be meeting with professional staff in their areas to present more detailed information about the ODP outcomes and to let affected staff know how and when the proposed designs will impact their roles.

Universities are places where plausible myths and legends abound - and some of these will raise concerns. Staff will have the opportunity to engage directly in discussions about the proposed changes at all-staff events at Callaghan and Ourimbah over the coming weeks, as well as a series of roadshows in Schools and organisational units led by senior executive staff. I do encourage you to attend these events and to raise any concerns with your leaders.

Decisions about the University’s future are not taken lightly or without careful consideration, particularly when they affect staff. I am conscious that for many staff – whether directly affected or otherwise - the prospect of change will cause anxiety and some distress. We will ensure that additional support will be available for staff as we work through these important changes for the future of UON.

I am also aware that many staff have been and will continue to be generous with their insights and ideas on how the University will adapt to the future. This informed and reflective input is critical as we work to stand as a world class institution, defined by our commitment to equity and excellence and to supporting the cities and regions we are proud to serve.

Best wishes,


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