Start of 2014

It’s now the start of the third month of 2014 and the start of a new academic year and here are some thoughts to kick it off.

Arizona

In January I visited Arizona State University (ASU) and the University of Arizona.  Both institutions are ‘Land Grant’ universities which means they were established primarily to benefit their communities.  ASU is widely recognised as a leader in strategy, information management and improving retention outcomes for its students.  ASU has a very similar student demographic to CSU and has a very sophisticated system for identifying students who may be at risk based on their academic performance.  It transpired that one of their key initiatives to improve retention has been to build residences and work on community formation – both themes which have been important to us at CSU.  ASU also has a commitment to achieve carbon neutrality and it was interesting to see solar panels everywhere – including covering the car parks and as shade structures around the campus in Tempe.

University of Arizona has a Native Nations Institute and, through its College of Law, an Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program (IPLP). Professor Miriam Jorgensen from the Native Nations Institute has been involved with CSU and other Australian universities on a collaborative research project to explore nation building for Indigenous Australian communities.  Several of our staff and members of the Wiradjuri nation had visited Arizona in 2013 to attend the IPLP.  The visit was a very interesting experience; there are significant differences between the context for American Indian communities in the US and Indigenous communities here but there are also strong parallels. In particular, they have focussed on establishing good governance structures and practices in communities to assist community and economic development.

What was really refreshing about both institutions was that they were genuine in thinking first about what their communities need and as a distant second about how this might play out in terms of esteem through global rankings.  As far as I could tell, this applied at all levels and was a significant change to the level of perpetual angst over rankings we seem to have in Australia.  I hope we will be able to continue the relationship with both universities.

Australian Federal Government Priorities

In the next few weeks we expect to get some information about the outcomes of the Federal Government’s Commission of Audit and Review of the Demand Driven System.  Needless to say, the whole sector is hanging on this because the impacts could be anything from negligible through to significant.  The Federal Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, addressed Vice-Chancellors at a dinner last week but it has to be said we ended up much better informed about the Minister’s views on the values of higher education (and the contribution of Sir Robert Menzies to it) than on any future policy directions.  Sadly, the Minister did confirm the Government’s commitment to imposing the efficiency dividend on the sector which was announced by the previous Labor government.  When Labor announced it, the Coalition condemned it and bizarrely now that the Coalition is enforcing it in government, Labor is opposing it.  Go figure.

O Week and Start of Academic Year

Last week, we also held O Week events and commencement celebrations on our campuses.  I was able to take part in the ceremony in Bathurst and in a welcome to students living in Residences.  In addition to new and replacement capacity in Wagga Wagga and Orange, there has been very significant refurbishment of residences on the Bathurst campus.  A very strong theme for us has been the value of residences in helping students to grow socially and succeed at their studies (this is similar to the experience at Arizona State University).  We know that it is more difficult to create a good community in a poor environment and we are hoping that the investment in facilities is going to pay off in better outcomes for students.  However, there is also the need for strong support mechanisms and with Paul Dowler and Ken Dillon I took part in the training sessions for the Resident Assistants (RAs) in the second week of February.  I have done this each year since I took on the VC’s role and I have thoroughly enjoyed it on every occasion.  They are a great bunch of very motivated people and it is always great to get a student’s eye view of the organisation.

Universities Australia Conference and MOOCs

As mentioned earlier, last week we had the Universities Australia Conference – at which I once again tried my hand at live tweeting and also ran a panel session on MOOCs.  The MOOCs discussion was an interesting exercise; as participants I had Professor Jane den Hollander, Vice-Chancellor at Deakin University, Professor Gregor Kennedy from the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at Melbourne University, Sally-Ann Williams from Google and Professor George Siemens, now at University of Texas but who started the whole MOOC thing at Athabasca University along with Stephen Downes.  I was very pleased to meet George personally for the first time.  I encouraged pre-discussion via our new Blackboard Course Site and also via Twitter.

In the discussion at the conference itself, it was plain that much of the hype that has been attached to the ‘MOOC’ label was a symptom of the wider change that is happening in higher education.  In particular, the internet and broadband connectivity has made it easier to consume information for all learners and easier to deliver education for all providers – everyone is a publisher now.  It is not a new theme but this does challenge us to focus on what distinctive value we can offer as universities because no-one now needs us merely to access information.  It is also clear that universities have embraced technology and are making dramatic changes in the way they deliver courses.  However, for many they are not yet skillfully using technology to reduce workload for both students and staff and we will need to solve that if we are to thrive into the future.  One point that should not be overlooked is that MOOCs have attracted those who are learning purely for interest and the love of it.  It is pretty hard to be critical of something that attracted most of us to work in higher education in the first place. However, there was a consensus that perhaps it was time to ditch the term and get back to talking about education more generally.

Finally, it’s worth saying something about themes that emerged in the online pre-discussion but less so at the conference. Some of my twitter correspondents mused on the cultural imperialism aspects of MOOCs.  Is there the risk that our intellectual life will become homogenised – and Americanised – as much as our suburbs have?  In one of his movies, Wim Wenders said “the Yanks have colonised our subconscious”.  There is now a global interest in MOOCs from developing countries but we should also be interested in this in smaller countries in the developed world.  That is, we should if we value our cultural identity. Another very interesting point raised in the online conversation was the relationship between the use of technology to facilitate teaching and casualisation in higher education.  Casualisation was almost unmentioned at the conference and yet it is a topic of intense concern to staff, both for that section of the casual workforce looking for a permanent position and for existing staff who are managing the workload associated with managing teams of casuals.

Student Demand and Challenges for 2014

We are still counting the enrolments for the first session of 2014.  Indications at this stage are that we will meet our budget target for load, which is good.  However, it seems plain from State and National data that the demand driven system is topping out and student demand is plateauing.  It is also plain that all universities are getting very much more competitive for students and that students are recognising they have more power and more choice.  On top of this, the ease with which distance education can be delivered via the internet means that there are many more players entering the market.  So, a lot more choice for students but no university can afford to be complacent.  We need to ensure we have courses that are relevant, engaging, that teach students well and deliver graduates who are highly employable as well as being well-grounded, decent human beings.  We also need to provide a great student experience and ensure that all interactions with the university work smoothly.  So, not much to ask for but this is what our Strategy sets out for us to do over the next two years.  2014, then, is a year of delivering on our strategy.  Some of this is going to be exciting and innovative, but much of it will be unglamorous with a fair bit of graft.  To use the words from our Strategy though, we need to have the gumption and the soul to tackle the task.

September Update

Enterprise Agreement

I thought I should start this blog with some comment on the recent Enterprise Agreement ballot.  I was very pleased with the level of staff participation in this ballot and of course that a majority voted to endorse this agreement.  As noted in communications to staff, I think that the pay increase of 11.9% across four years and the other changes represent a good compromise deal for the University and its staff in difficult financial circumstances following the cuts announced by the previous government.

‘Your Voice’ Survey

I also wanted to comment on the Your Voice Staff Survey.  Again, we had a really good response rate (about 80%) which I am very pleased about because it means we can be sure the results are a good indication of the mood of the institution.  An overview of the results can be found at the Your Voice Survey website.

Overall, the key indices we have chosen to measure our performance, the Passion and Progress indices, have improved by 3% against the 2010 survey.  This is good, but there are mixed aspects within the survey.  I’ll start with the not-so-positive aspects and then move to the better news.

One thing that is troubling is that some particular areas were rated worse than the last survey in 2010.  These included prevention of bullying, encouragement for evaluation of teaching, encouragement for collaborative research and commitment to ongoing training and development. On average, more than 50% of staff rated each of these positively but nonetheless it is cause for concern that the scores have declined.  There are variations in response across the University and we will need to work further to understand what has happened here, and what can be done to address it.

A second set of concerns is the areas that are rated least positively on average. These include good communication, change management, learning from mistakes, career planning, workload and consultation.  However, each of these has improved since the 2010 survey and they are now within a percent or two of the average for all universities.  Workload in particular was rated 9% more positively than 2010.  However, it has to be said that universities do much worse on most of these than the average of all industries so there is no room for complacency.

On the positive side, there were significant improvements in perceptions of the way CSU is run, buildings, grounds and facilities, environmental responsibility, support for teaching, research and community engagement.  We are at, or ahead of, the sector on all these and well ahead on environmental responsibility; 14% better than the average of other universities and 18% better than the average of all other industries.  It is interesting that the rating for satisfaction with income is 9% better than 2010, 7% better than the average of other universities and 10% better than the average of all industries.

The most positively rated aspects were role clarity, belief in the overall purpose of CSU, job satisfaction, mission and values and organisational commitment.  Again, these were improved from 2010 and ahead of the universities average, and significantly ahead of the all industry average.

So, what to make of all this?  People who work in universities love their work and are strongly committed to it from a values perspective.  However, they don’t think we communicate internally or manage change very well and they feel overworked.

I want to assure everyone within the University that I, and the Senior Executive, take the opinion survey very seriously. We will not be able to fix everything all at once and we do need to prioritise.  We have a process in place to work through the results right across the University.  The themes identified above will need to be priorities and there will be particular issues in particular areas.  The Division of HR is working through the results of the survey with all areas in the organisation and I look forward to working with you all to implement the outcomes from this.

The New Government

Obviously, we now have a new Federal Government which was elected with a significant majority. It is very pleasing that three of the representatives who have been particular friends to CSU and to regional higher education – Senator Fiona Nash, Michael McCormack and Sussan Ley have senior roles within the new government.  We congratulate them on this and very much look forward to working with them in their new capacity.

There has been recent media speculation about comments by Christopher Pyne, the Education Minister.  In my view, the Minister’s comments were largely a restatement of his views made clear before the election and I think there was little that was surprising.  Also I think that commentators have read more into the comments than was warranted.  Both Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne were at pains before the election to point out that they would take a considered and consultative approach to higher education changes.  Christopher Pyne is also on record as saying that they do not propose to reintroduce caps.

The suggestion of scrapping the Student Services and Amenities Fee is disappointing but predictable given the Liberal Party’s objection to its introduction.  The Prime Minister has played down suggestion that this will be a short-term priority for the Government.  However, if it were to happen it does have the potential to have a significant impact on our services to students and we will be lobbying to ensure the government understands this.  Once again, it has been pleasing to see many people, including Michael McCormack, coming to the defence of the SSAF in the media.

University Strategy

I have been making presentations across the campuses on the University Strategy – disrupted somewhat by acquiring the unpleasant cold virus that circulated in NSW this winter.  There are still a couple of sessions to go but, for those unable to attend, a recording of the second session at Wagga Wagga is available here.  I am also looking to organise a session via Adobe Connect for anyone who missed the earlier sessions or was unable to attend.

As you will recall, we finalised the top-level Strategy at the start of the year.  We have been working to finalise the sub-plans which specify in more detail what will happen in each of the 12 areas.  These plans are now close to finalisation and are being shared at the Vice-Chancellor’s Forum (VCF) this week.  Some of these have been out for consultation across the University already but they will all be shared more widely after VCF.

Online Learning

I mention this in the Strategy presentations but interest in the online space continues.  Whilst this is territory that universities such as those in the Group of Eight are now trying to claim as their own, it is an area in which we have deep capability and long experience.  Having worked at two universities which have strong capability in online and distance learning, I do not think it is so simple to rethink pedagogy to work in this way.  Therefore I do not believe that existing distance providers, or regional universities generally, will be swept away by Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) offered by universities that have not been in this space before.  I suspect there will be a bubble in this which will burst in due course.  I think we have a sound strategy to continue our growth and dominance in this area, including the appointment of new staff as mentioned below.

Smart Learning

The Smart Learning project, led by Professor Alan Bain, is now well underway.  This is a very significant project for us and will run over the course of five years.  The project provides a thoughtful, systematic, supported, documented approach to curriculum design.  I think that as higher education teaching and learning has become more thoughtful and professional we have missed approaches of this kind.  It will mean a significant change to the way we design curriculum but one that I believe is critical if we are to meet internal and external requirements for demonstrating the quality of what we do.  The project has a long time line and is starting with a set of pilot courses in each faculty.  We will, I am sure, learn a lot along the way.  However,  as far as I can tell, we are leading the sector with this project so I think this is a very important part of achieving our ambition to be seen to be at the forefront of educational innovation.

New Appointments

Finally, I want to welcome two new senior appointments.  Professor Heather Cavanagh has been appointed to the position of Pro-Vice Chancellor International Education and Partnerships after acting in the role earlier in the year.  Heather is a long-standing staff member at CSU having joined us in 1998 and having previously held roles as Acting Executive Dean (Faculty of Science) and Sub-Dean International (Faculty of Science).  This is an important role to achieve the objectives in the internationalisation section of our Strategy.

Professor Sandra Wills has been appointed to the role of Pro-Vice Chancellor Student Learning which she will take up in November. Professor Wills is currently Executive Director, Learning and Teaching, at the University of Wollongong and has a very strong background and international reputation in educational technology.  This is also a critical appointment for us in ensuring we retain our position as the leader in distance and online education.

Thanks and farewell to Nick Klomp

I have done this personally but I wanted to say a separate public thank you to Professor Nick Klomp and congratulate him on his appointment to the DVC Education role at University of Canberra.  Nick and I met some years ago on a Universities Australia leadership course and he was clearly someone of great intelligence, talent and energy.  There is no question that Nick has made an enormous contribution to CSU as well as being a credit to the institution.  Whilst I am very sad to see him go, the move will be great for Nick’s career and of course for UC.  We hope he won’t be a stranger to us after his move.

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