Insights Blog

Facing the future in Australian universities

Facing the future in Australian universities

17 February 2017, by Dr Geoff Sharrock

As the digital era makes knowledge both hyper-abundant and hyper-accessible, societies benefit hugely. This is the Western university’s enlightenment agenda writ large. But the global learning boom has boomerang effects. The new learning channels seem great for the mission and grand for the brand; but they may yet be grim for the business model.

As a big disruptive challenge, the potential for MOOCs to support personalised yet mass scale online study must loom large in strategic plans. Campuses won’t disappear. But with students, staff and employers all reaching for the cloud, 50 shades of blended learning is becoming the new normal.

Change threatens on other fronts also. Along with the rise of globally sourced provision there are local moves toward greater industry integration, more intense competition for scarce public funding, and more open markets for talented students and staff. The contest here is not just within the sector, among the universities. Powerful new entrants may come from adjacent sectors.

Recently, most Australian universities have seen rising enrolments, rising revenues and growing costs. But all face pressure for inner transformation as the landscape evolves. Recognising this, many leaders see external engagement and partnerships as more critical than ever, to build institutional capacity. They recognise that attempts to do too much in-house, often in the name of independence, can limit an institution’s ability to pursue its public mission. Partnering becomes more critical to supplement the resource base (for corporate reasons). But also, to achieve the scale and reach required to generate greater public value (for enlightenment reasons). In turn, as institutions connect with other social sectors and enterprises, new work roles and processes are recasting the quasi-monastic idea of the university as a community of scholars. A more outward looking multi-professional community of experts has emerged.

To prepare for a future of greater engagement and competition with other sectors, Australian universities must aim for lower operating costs (to sustain programs), greater flexibility (to adapt to market shifts or policy changes), and greater external engagement (to promote innovation, widen impact and amplify public support). This implies greater organisational agility, but universities are not known for this. Legacy systems and processes, and a cultural aversion to risk and change, often conspire to thwart institutional efforts to adapt or innovate rapidly enough. In a sector that seems ripe for disruption, institutions now need to pursue what is usually called business process improvement. But which mindset should leaders bring to the task?

Exhibit 1(below) illustrates how, like business enterprises, universities have four broad organisational domains: people, programs and systems; and strategies to combine these sustainably. Each of these implies a different focus and mindset for leadership groups. For executive leaders in the Q4 domain, the resource outlook is critical. They know that every budget they frame must support an inherently infinite mission with inevitably finite means.








Exhibit 1

Much of the aversion to change in universities, particularly projects aimed at lowering operating costs, arises from the Q1 and Q2 domains. One risk is that a major attempt to cut costs will lead to job losses or team dispersal in the ‘multi-professional community’ domain, which puts people first. Another is poorer services, project failure or program closure in the ‘creative engagement’ domain, which puts mission attainment first.

However, if system complexity can be streamlined and decision blockages can be reduced, everyone wins. With some business-as-usual approval processes an institution may filter every case through quite complex documentation, review and committee approval; even where the risks are low and the compliance costs high. Systemic ambiguities in policy definition, consultation protocols or decision making rights create familiar problems. These include under-resourced projects, over-loaded staff, ineffectual change efforts, and failed attempts at new ventures with industry clients or partners. Such symptoms suggest a need to simplify governance and procedures and to delegate more, supported by robust policies and information systems. These are all Q3 issues.

When it succeeds, business process improvement in the Q3 domain offers the twin benefits of freeing up time and effort to get routine work done, and scope to reinvest these resources. The main winners from successful streamlining are those engaged in front line professional work with students, research projects or third stream work in the Q2 domain. Here, local flexibility to act, adjust approaches and negotiate expectations is highly valued. This is where the potential to improve services, renew programs and secure external resources is greatest. To sustain morale in the Q1 domain, any such payoff cannot come too soon.

All this means that change leaders can’t afford to ignore any domain for long. To be credible, each major change must be framed in a way that makes sense for all four mindsets.

Dr Geoff Sharrock is Program Director at the LH Martin Institute. This is an adapted piece from Geoff's chapter in Visions for Australian Tertiary Education, published by the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education on 27 February 2017.

Bookmark and Share


There are currently no comments

About Insights

Insights is a regular feature of the LH Martin Institute e-Newsletter, presenting opinion pieces from tertiary education's leaders and experts. Subscribe to the e-newsletter.

* The views and comments expressed in 'Insights' belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of LH Martin Institute.

All Articles
Paul Abela (1)
Muneer Ahmed (3)
Prof Warwick Anderson (1)
Professor Awang Bulgiba Awang Mahmud (1)
Liz Bare (2)
Liz Baré & Dr Emmaline Bexley (1)
James Barron (1)
Fabiana Barros de Barros (2)
Damian Barry (1)
Janet Beard (1)
Prof Warren Bebbington (1)
Prof Sharon Bell (1)
Doron Ben-Meir (1)
Peter Bentley (5)
Anne-Marie Birkill (1)
Prof Sandra Bohlinger (1)
Tom Boland (1)
Prof. Victor (Vic) Borden (1)
Prof Tim Brailsford (1)
Prof. Gerald Burke (1)
Professor Linda Butler (1)
Angel Calderon (1)
Angel Calderon and Karen L. Weber (1)
Dr Jan Cameron (1)
Emeritus Prof Richard Carter (1)
Dr Margaret-Anne Carter and Natalia Veles (1)
Pam Caven (1)
Rosalind Chan (1)
Pam Christie (1)
Maree Conway (1)
Prof Roy Crawford (2)
Suzanne Crew (1)
Prof Stephen Crump & Linda Cooper (1)
Jim Davidson (2)
Dr Heather Davis (5)
H. Davis, S. Jones, R. Bolden and P. Gentle (1)
Prof Glyn Davis (1)
Associate Prof. Stijn Dekeyser (1)
Anne Dening (1)
Prof John Dewar (1)
Martin Doel OBE (1)
Bianca Durrant (1)
Mari Elken (1)
Lorelle Espinosa (1)
Dr Peter Ewell (1)
Professor Mike Ewing (1)
Penny Fenwick & Dr Jan Cameron (1)
Neil Fernandes (1)
Claire Field (1)
Jon File (3)
Dr Scott Flower (1)
Pat Forward (1)
Dr Nick Fredman (3)
Rafael Arruda Furtado & Tatiana deCampos Aranovich (1)
Michael Gallagher (1)
Prof. Leo Goedegebuure (4)
Prof. Leo Goedegebuure & Prof. Lynn Meek (1)
Prof. Leo Goedegebuure & A/Prof. Ruth Schubert (1)
Valentina Goglio (1)
Ian Gostelow (1)
Carroll Graham (1)
Stephen Gray (1)
Andrew Gunn (1)
Andrew Gunn and Michael Mintrom (1)
Carol Harding (1)
Assoc Prof Damien Harkin (2)
Prof Elizabeth Harman (1)
Tony Heywood (1)
Professor Jeroen Huisman (2)
K. Johnson, D. Warr, K. Hegarty and M. Guillemin (1)
Professor Anne Jones (1)
Dr Steven Jones (1)
Tom Karmel (2)
Sharon Kerr (2)
Prof Denise Kirkpatrick (1)
Prof Linda Kristjanson (1)
Eunyoung Kyung (1)
Professor Emeritus Frank Larkins (22)
Prof. Frank Larkins & Assoc. Prof. Ian Marshman (5)
Jack Latimore (1)
Alan Lawler (1)
Mary Leahy (1)
LH Martin Institute (2)
Qingcheng Li (1)
Megan Lilly (1)
Prof David G Lloyd (1)
Bruce Mackenzie (1)
Hon. Steve Maharey (1)
Marian Mahat (6)
Prof. Vin Massaro (1)
Derek McCormack (1)
Prof. Stuart McCutcheon (1)
Prof V. Lynn Meek (1)
Darren Menachemson (1)
Prof Robin Middlehurst (1)
Gavin Moodie (2)
Bruce Muirhead (2)
Dennis Murray (2)
Huong Nguyen (1)
Arwin Nimis (1)
Peter Noonan (1)
Andrew Norton (1)
Faisal Notta & Dr Tashmin Khamis (1)
Ms Ĺsa Olsson (2)
Ms Jan Owen AM (1)
Prof Gareth Parry (2)
Lea Patterson (1)
Prof Alan Pettigrew (3)
Barbara Pocock (1)
Dr Stefan Popenici (1)
Emily Porrello (1)
Professor Richie Poulton (1)
Dr Joanne Pyke (2)
Dr Sarah Richardson and Assoc. Prof. Hamish Coates (1)
Martin Riordan (1)
Prof. Jo Ritzen (1)
Mark Robinson (1)
Julie Rowlands (1)
Professor Yoni Ryan (1)
Paula Sanderson (1)
Dr Ruth Schubert (4)
Kevin Seales (1)
Jeffrey Selingo (1)
Dr Geoff Sharrock (6)
Robin Shreeve (1)
Denise Stevens (1)
Jan Stevenson (1)
Associate Professor Elaine Stratford (2)
Prof. Andrew J. Szeri (1)
Mark Tayar & Rob Jack (1)
Dr Ly Tran (1)
Frances Valintine (1)
Prof Andrew Vann (1)
Prof Frans van Vught (1)
Professor Robert Wagenaar (1)
Prof Pat Walsh (2)
Mark Warburton (4)
Dr Stephen Weller (2)
Professor Paul Wellings (1)
Dr Julie Wells (1)
Lakshmi West (1)
Jennifer Westacott (1)
Assoc Prof Leesa Wheelahan (6)
David Windridge (1)
Dr Peter Woelert (1)
Dr Peter Woelert and Dr Victoria Millar (1)
Haydn Wright (1)
Prof. Omar Yaakob (1)
Serena Yu (1)
Dr Nadine Zacharias (1)
Janis Bailey, Carolyn Troup and Glenda Strachan (1)
Mr Darryl Carpenter (1)
Ed Bernacki (1)
Prof Sandra Jones (1)
Penelope Thomas (1)
October (2)
September (1)
August (1)
July (2)
June (5)
May (2)
April (2)
March (2)
February (2)
December (1)
November (2)
October (1)
September (3)
August (1)
July (4)
June (4)
April (1)
March (3)
February (2)
December (1)
November (1)
October (3)
September (2)
August (3)
July (3)
May (1)
April (2)
March (2)
February (1)
November (3)
October (2)
September (4)
August (4)
July (6)
June (4)
May (3)
April (5)
March (4)
February (4)
January (3)
November (4)
October (4)
September (4)
August (8)
July (5)
June (6)
May (5)
April (4)
March (4)
February (5)
January (2)
November (3)
October (3)
September (6)
August (5)
July (2)
June (2)
May (2)
April (3)
March (5)
February (4)
January (2)
November (4)
October (4)
September (6)
August (3)
July (3)
June (3)
May (4)
April (1)
March (2)
February (1)
January (2)
November (2)
October (2)
September (4)
August (3)
July (2)
June (2)