What is the role of information in university planning?
7 September 2012, by Prof Tim Brailsford
Professor Tim Brailsford is Vice Chancellor & President of Bond University. Bond is Australia’s first and only truly independent non-profit university, located on the Gold Coast.
We live in an information-rich world where facts, figures, definitions, opinions, reference pieces and the like can be accessed through just a push of the search button on your keyboard. Further, Vice Chancellors now have planning and information teams whose role is to gather institutional data with the aim that somehow these data will prove useful. However, in this note, I raise the question as to whether the vast array of information will assist and improve decision-making within the university sector.
There can be no doubt that the complexity bar of decision-making in higher education has been raised several fold over the past few decades. The challenge for senior management is to balance the inevitable short-term reactionary and opportunistic decisions that arise through exogenous factors, both on the international and domestic fronts, against the decisions necessary to implement long-term planning and strategy. These tensions have arguably always been at the forefront of Vice Chancellors, their Councils and senior management teams. However, it is the pace of change in the modern university that has amplified these tensions.
All universities have some form of strategic plan that typically covers the next 3-5 years. While such plans are often criticised for their lack of operational intent, and their overuse of warm motherhood statements, a careful read will often reveal the general pathway that is planned for the institution. This sets the direction and permeates decisions about marginal funding allocations. However, adherence to the path can be a difficult challenge when confronted by all manner of diversions along the way.
The Australian scene is increasingly dominated by the financial imperative. Governments and university Councils are no longer tolerant of Vice Chancellors who wish to run budget deficits. Staff and their unions will not accept periods of grace when it comes to wage negotiations. Researchers will move elsewhere if their infrastructure and laboratories are not up to scratch. Students are reluctant to accept poor support services in the name of improved research standing. The mantra is that these considerable cost-side pressures can only be met if revenue growth is achieved. Hence, the common strategy is dominated by thoughts of expansion, principally centred on student enrolment growth. However, we are starting to see signs of the limits of growth.
By any measure, the Australian higher education sector has been an outstanding export performer. We have been widely regarded as an exemplar by overseas governments in our ability to attract fee-paying international students. Universities operate in a global market place in which it is difficult for any particular domestic government to regulate clearance prices and volumes. While Australia has been the subject of concerns about declining quality, some of this arguably justified when it comes to outcomes, our sector has nonetheless been able to embark on a remarkable expansion that has lasted over two decades. However, the world has caught up, and economic forces such as the sustained appreciation of the Australian dollar and some dampening effects of policy, have weakened the Aussie pull factor.
On the domestic scene, the uncapping of undergraduate demand has led to an explosion of places within the public system. Domestic undergraduate enrolments have exceeded most forecasts, including Treasury modelling as we have been led to believe. The increased revenue stream from the additional places has been a welcome relief to many Vice Chancellors. However, as documented elsewhere in many forums, the question being asked is how long such a policy can last.
Without getting into a detailed discussion about the state of the system, the above description should suffice to make the point that strategy cannot be set by any institution in isolation from the external environment. One wonders how many strategic plans back in 2009 anticipated the current set of circumstances. This is not a criticism of the planning process, but rather a reality check to those who believe a strategic plan can be set in stone.
Cast against this backdrop is the growing tendency of both institutions and government to create resource-intensive information divisions. At the Commonwealth level, think no further than the MyUniversity website and the creation of TEQSA. These latest requirements are in addition to the existing sets of statistical data lodged with various government departments and agencies.
The response by universities has been to invest in administrative units that have the capability to collate the required data in the specific form for transmission to government. As an aside, the collective costs of these efforts should not be under-estimated, however I will leave that particular debate for another occasion.
While the concept of a central, public record of university statistics insofar as they influence student choice is laudable, the reality is that the MyUniversity website is not particularly useful for meaningful comparisons. The project has been plagued by definitional problems and a lack of homogeneity in institutional classifications. Ironically, it is arguable that the lack of consistency across the sector is a good thing if we strive for variety and diversity.
Much of the information on the MyUniversity website is largely irrelevant for internal university use, albeit that it has not been designed for such use. There are more reliable and timely data sources about trends, competitor analysis and benchmarking. This leads to the question as to exactly where universities source data for internal purposes. The answer is varied, and there is no single source. Some universities rely heavily on benchmarking either through collective groups (such as the Group of Eight), others utilise commercial services which tend to operate on a base subscription plus fee-for-service, yet others use a mix of in-house sources supplemented by external bits and pieces. But how valuable are these data for decision-making?
Everyone is so time poor these days, and getting diaries aligned for a meeting sometimes seems almost an impossible task. The last complication that anyone needs is a dispute over data accuracy or its reliability, to intervene during a strategic discussion. Yet, such disputes are not uncommon within university circles. The difficulty is that internal systems often have been developed for specific purposes and hence do not talk across the institution, or where an ERM or equivalent has been installed, modifications have occurred. Senior administrators speak of the desirability of a single source of truth. However, systems serving multiple purposes across thousands of people do not guarantee the right answer to a well meaning question. Other organisations face similar issues and on a much larger scale. However, the demands from a multitude of stakeholders and a lack of clarity of ultimate goals make universities rife for bickering about information.
The corporate world has recognised the information problem and many organisations have embedded the position of Chief Information Officer who is charged with the ultimate responsibility for data collection, storage, protection and transmission. However, this role is confused within university circles by the existence of the library. In some institutions, the CIO has been installed as a modern Librarian. The role of librarian, even in the information age, is separate and distinct from the vehicle required to assist and inform central decision-making.
The role of a central office that is independent of internal interests that can fearlessly provide accurate and timely information has become critical. Can anyone imagine companies launching major new product lines without a robust business case and market analysis? Yet universities do exactly this. It has worked in the past because there has always been demand, and product failures have been masked through the generosity afforded through growth. However, the era of growth is passing and the management jargon will turn to concepts of productivity and efficiency. In such an environment, mistakes cannot be carried and the governance expectations are that decisions under uncertainty will need to be defended.
Let us return to the current dilemma. The environment is uncertain, yet our stakeholders demand long-term plans that set strategy and direction. However, key decisions must be made in the short-term and many of these will be reactionary and opportunistic decisions. The best decisions will be those that are reached after an evaluation of the options, and an analysis of the impact on the long-term goals. How universities evaluate and analyse will depend substantially on the quality of their available data and information.