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.

Strategy Launch

If you are a staff member of CSU and reading this, about now a copy of the revised University Strategy will be landing on your desk. We have also made a video to promote the strategy which you can view here. I expect (and hope) that there will be another round of interest in the document as it reaches everyone and there were therefore a few things I wanted to emphasise.

First, this document is intended primarily for the internal audience. Many strategic plans appear to be written mainly as marketing tools and therefore spend a lot more time painting the organisation in the best possible light than focussing on what needs to be done. We have tried to strike a different balance with the CSU 2013-15 strategy. Whilst it is certainly intended to be read by external stakeholders it is not, for example, the main way we would promote ourselves to students.

Second, I wanted to remind everyone that we intended to come up with a distinctive and authentic plan. Therefore the narrative section on Page 2 reads in a different style to the conventional corporate speak, or at least I hope it does. As mentioned in the development process, I think a good strategy document should require a bit of chewing and digestion so I hope that it will prompt people to think deeply about the type of university we aspire to be and what we aim to do for our communities, our students and ourselves.

The third page is intended to be the ‘to-do’ list of things that need to be resolved if we are to succeed. This is broken up into eight strategic priorities and four strategic enablers and each of them has objectives and measures. Work is being carried out at present by members of the Senior Executive to develop appropriate detail around these. For some of them, such as sustainability, we have well-developed plans already which need bringing up to date. For others, such as the Courses and Campuses area, there will need to be a new sub-plan written.

Third, we have measures associated with the overall plan and each of the sub-plans. Those on the second page will be used by Council to assess the university’s performance and my performance as Vice-Chancellor. Those associated with the sub-plans on the third page will be used for a more detailed assessment of our performance and that of the Senior Executive team. In turn, we will cascade this down through the Executive Deans and Divisional Executive Directors. In this way we should all have a common view on to what we are trying to achieve and how well we are doing.

Finally, I think this will be an interesting year, particularly given the expected political changes at the national level. I think it is important that an organisation knows what it wants to achieve and is not blown wherever the winds of government policy might take it. I am pleased that we have set out what we are trying to do, for whom and why and, to extend the sailing metaphor, this will be a good compass for us as we track through the next few years.

Look forward to further discussions.

End of Year Blog Post

So, this will be my final blog post of what has been a very busy year.  I wanted to start by thanking all of you for reading this blog and to say I have really enjoyed the interaction and responses.  Some of these have come through comments on the blog itself, some through e-mail and face-to-face interaction. I know a number of people have told me they have enjoyed the blog but have been happy to ‘lurk’.  Many CSU staff have also signed up for Yammer as an internal online communication mechanism and I have enjoyed that space too.

One of the things to relay is that the University strategy document was approved (with some very minor amendments) by University Council on 6 December.  The final version will be produced and issued early in the New Year and this will form our road map for the next three years.  The next steps are to develop the suite of plans that sit at the level below this and also to refine the performance indicators listed in the document and bring them into a more disciplined annual review process.  This also will be work for the New Year.

A brief update on two significant initiatives: Medicine and Engineering.  We continue to lobby for the Medical School.  You may have seen that UNSW have announced a bid for Wagga Wagga.  Whilst we think it is good that the metropolitan schools are taking the issue of regional medical education more seriously, it is still not clear that the bid addresses the issues that we think are of real concern – that is that the program would have a regionally-focussed curriculum, would select based on intention to practise in regional and rural areas and would have strong regional governance and control.  We are planning to promote further discussion on these issues in the New Year and also to have some further announcements about our bid.  Engineering has been the subject of a lot of work through the year.  It is not clear at this stage that the demand is so strong that we can afford to make the necessary capital investments to get this off the ground without government support.  We therefore have more work to do with employers through 2013 to finalise this case and seek support.

As the year draws to a close, I have been reflecting on work practices and the issue of general busy-ness.  Certainly the last few weeks for me with conference presentations, State and National Universities meetings, University Council and then a week of Graduations has meant there has been little time to keep on top of, or catch up on, communications (that’s why I’m writing this whilst technically on the second day of my leave).  In the last week, one of the suggestions raised was that we should perhaps have an e-mail free period during the week.  A number of organisations have tried strategies along these lines (I’ve also heard that some organisations ban sending e-mails to anyone on the same floor of the same building).  I don’t know that it’s worth going over the top on these things but I have certainly found that for the sake of sanity, it’s good to have some self-imposed discipline about dealing with online communications. I have moved to more of a practice of ‘slow’ e-mail where I put time aside to process it in a batch and have told my direct reports I will likely only reply the next day.  I also used to be a ‘news vulture’ and wake up by listening to the news.  I have now stopped this and usually kill the alarm straight away.  It only struck me one morning this year, when I slipped back to the old habit, what a rotten start to the day it was to begin with a summary of everything that’s bad in the world – and I don’t now feel any worse informed for the lack of it.  In short then, whilst I really value the access and information we have through the Internet, I do try to make sure I am in control of my information flows rather than vice-versa.

2013 should be a very interesting year.  We will see whether there have been any shifts in demand as the demand-driven funding model settles down.  We will have a Federal election and we will have to see whether that brings any changes for higher education.  I sincerely hope that the quality of political debate during the campaign is not only light years but several galaxies away from what we have experienced through 2012.

I would like to thank all at CSU for their hard work and dedication in 2012.  As I have previously noted, it has been a real pleasure and a privilege to take on the Vice-Chancellor’s role.  Whilst I do not treat this lightly, I have had an enormously enjoyable and fulfilling year and I am looking forward to an even better 2013.

I enjoy the Christmas period as a chance to refresh, renew, take stock and prepare for the coming year.  After having spent a lot of time away from home this year I’m also looking forward to getting to know that attractive woman with the three stroppy children who shares my house.  I wish you all a happy and safe festive season and hope that you get the chance to enjoy time with your families and friends too.

Draft Narrative and Strategy Document

I’m finalising this post at Sydney airport, waiting for a plane to Bathurst after delays due to storms.  It has been nice to have some time to sit down and attend to things after a hectic couple of weeks.

If you’ve been following this blog, you will know that we have been working on revising the narrative and strategy for the university.  As I noted back in May while we have a strategic plan that covers the bases, I feel we are still lacking clarity about our overall mission, institutional story, or narrative as I have called it.  I believe we need this to ensure we are all on the same page and focussed. That post kicked off discussions to find a more powerful expression of what we are truly about.

I have enjoyed the robust conversations, feedback and comments from many forums since. I have found everyone’s contributions to be very valuable in testing new and refined ideas.  I’ve also been put on to some great readings (have been really enjoying David Whyte’s ‘The Heart Aroused’).

As the new narrative started to emerge, in discussions I think it also confirmed that the existing 2011-15 University Strategy document needed to be distilled into a new condensed and more focussed format.  This is not to throw out the old, but builds on and clarifies the best parts of our work over the last few years.

With your help, we have made significant progress in our narrative and documentation to a stage where I think it is in a suitable format to seek broader comments and feedback.  Although still draft, the latest version of the University Strategy and Actions 2013-2015 is provided here – CSU Strategy Draft.

If it is to be effective, strategic planning needs to be tested against the reality of an organisation and its communities.  I would welcome your honest opinion on how this document is shaping up.  I also plan to test this with our students and alumni and our community through our Heads of Campus and this blog.

I think it is good and getting close; it will never be perfect.  I have found that exposing and testing drafts through the process has really helped to clarify thinking and wording on the document and this will really be the last chance for this year.  We are intending that the second page (as printed – page 3 in this PDF draft) stays fairly constant but that the detailed priorities on the third page (as printed – page 4 in this PDF draft) will probably be updated each year with the planning cycle.  I think the final paragraph in the narrative – talking about using technology to achieve mobility and reach people wherever they are – needs a tweak of some sort still.  One challenge from a staff member was that many university mission statements read as ‘middle-aged whitefella dreaming’.  I hope that’s not all it is: I can’t avoid two of those tags, if I’m dreaming I’d like them to be good dreams.

There has been strong approval for the inclusion of the Wiradjuri phrase and I have to say that personally I love it.  I have pointed out that we need to honour this by being serious about living up to the challenge it sets.

The back page of the document articulates how it is intended it to be used.  However, a key point to keep in mind is that this document is not intended to be completely inclusive by naming everything that is happening in the university. I think one of the problems with strategic planning is that you can end up with a document that attempts to honour every part of the organisation, and lacks clarity as a result.  This does not mean that functions or areas that are not directly referenced are not important nor that they will not still have actions or responsibilities in the overall plan.  However, it probably does mean that change in those areas is not our most important priority in the short term.

Your feedback would be appreciated in the form of a comment to the blog, or if you prefer, a quick email or blog of your thoughts, hand written mark-ups, and/or ‘tracked changes’ to vc@csu.edu.au by COB Friday 16 November 2012.  A refined and final version will ultimately be presented to University Council in December 2012.

I really  look forward to hearing from you.

October Update

Once again, it has been a long gap since the last blog post.  In the intervening time I have been making strategy presentations to staff around the university.  I have to say it has been pleasing and encouraging to get feedback from staff that they have enjoyed the blog and that it has been provoking discussion.  A few people have commented that there was quite a lot to digest in the last post so maybe it’s not such a bad thing to have left a gap.  I was also pondering that given the deluge of words on the Internet, perhaps sometimes silence can be a virtue.

Narrative/Mission

I have had some wonderful and illuminating discussions with various people as a result of the blog and the presentations which have really helped us flesh out thoughts on the narrative. We have also had a Vice-Chancellor’s Forum at which we discussed strategy. There we committed to the conceptual content of the narrative and to producing a strategic summary of our direction on two pages.  The aim of this is to spell out what we are trying to achieve and what problems we need to solve to achieve this.  I am hoping that we can produce a document which is distinctive and which is useful for staff in thinking about priorities.  Because of this, it will not be a completely inclusive document.  I think one of the problems with strategic planning is that you can end up writing a document which attempts to honour every part of the organisation and ends up lacking clarity as a result.  We are currently in the process of finalising the draft of this and will circulate it widely for comment after that.

CSUED2012

I will be attending CSUED2012 in November as I think we have a lot of important work to do in considering our approach to teaching and learning.  Merilyn Childs from FLI and her colleagues have created some videos of my thoughts in the lead up to these.  They have been advertised via What’s New but if you haven’t seen them they’re here.

Also  on the theme of learning technologies, there’s some really active discussion on the CSU Yammer Groups https://www.yammer.com/csu.edu.au.

There has been a lot of discussion about MOOCs and a suggestion they might sweep away existing universities.  I doubt that is exactly what will happen and we are starting to see some commentary noting that completion rates are low and questions over the value of any badging from studying via a MOOC.  I think there will be interesting things to be learned from engaging with MOOCs though. Facilitating online scholarly communities and diagnostic testing to help learners locate their current knowledge and skills within the discipline are particularly interesting.  I do think we need to be able to innovate and experiment in the online space.  I don’t know that we want to jump on the MOOC bandwagon but perhaps we too should be finding some lower risk spaces where we can give away content so we can learn.

20/30/40 Year Service Awards

As noted from the Twitter feed, I attended the 20/30/40 Year Service awards.  It was lovely to get an opportunity to thank our long-serving staff.  Geoff Bamberry who received the 40 Year Service medal put me on to some good information about some of the early influences on CSU.  William Merrylees (after whom the Library is named in Wagga) was a long-term advocate of a proper university for the Riverina.  It’s nice to see in a paper written by Donald Boadle that Merrylees said it all before in the ‘60s (if in the then predominant gender-specific form):

“Although no other academic critic was as trenchant as Anderson, most singled out Merrylees’ emphasis on the community’s interests, claiming that he was preoccupied with ‘the training of professional people’ whose skills would be tailored to the narrowly utilitarian requirements of the Riverina’s rural producers.  But Merrylees replied that his aim, like Plato’s, was to educate ‘the whole man ; . . . to fit him to live a full life, and to respond to any situation; . . . in short to become a good citizen’.”

Medical School Bid

As you may have seen the National Party’s Federal Conference formally endorsed support for CSU’s Medical School bid.  This is a very positive step and builds on the outcomes of the Senate Inquiry into rural health workforces which also provided support. 

We continue to lobby for this with the Federal Government.  We need communities that have appropriate health care professionals and the Health Workforce Australia 2025 and Senate Inquiry reports both demonstrate that the existing systems are very unlikely to fix the current maldistribution of doctors within Australia.  This therefore is a community issue that we need to do our part in trying to solve.  I note the recent discussions around finding internships for international students many of which may end up in regional and rural areas.  It is clear therefore that the issue of placements and internships can be addressed if there is sufficient political will.  We look forward to this will being directed to a long-term solution for rural and regional health rather than to meeting the training needs of metropolitan medical schools.

CSU Bike Week

I was delighted to take part in CSU Bike Week a week or two ago and cycle into the Bathurst campus.  I have to confess I have generally driven into work because of the need to drive off to other places (and probably some laziness). I was doing OK at getting out on my bike for exercise early in the morning – but this was a bit disrupted by the spell of -5 mornings through the winter so it was great to get to work with the circulation moving.

Walkabouts

Now I have the initial round of familiarisation out of the way, I am trying to spend some more time visiting the actual workplaces in the university.  I had a lovely time on the Albury campus a couple of weeks ago with Julia Coyle just wandering through the offices and meeting people.  I’m planning to do some more of this over the coming months and years, but it may take a while to get to everybody.

Fun Things

I have mentioned Sir Ken Robinson’s ‘Are Schools Killing Creativity’ TED Talk at my staff presentations and it seems not many people have seen it.  It is wonderful and can be found here.

Sue Moloney, Director International Relations, forwarded a link to a lovely piece on the lessons from the Muppets for academic administration.  Ever since we went to see the Muppet Movie my wife has been asking me if I’m a man or a Muppet.  I’m happy to own up to channelling Kermit too.

Further thoughts on strategy, mission and narrative

There has been a long gap since my last post in this blog as I had a couple of weeks of international travel for the university followed by Vice-Chancellor’s Forum and then two weeks’ leave.  Since then (as well as catching up on tasks) I have started my round of presentations to staff and we have also had a University Council Planning session.  In these I have been presenting my thoughts on the mission, or what I have called the narrative, of the university.

Soul Power

With apologies to James Brown, I wanted to start by talking about the notion of ‘soul’ for an organisation.  This was one of the concepts that was in my mind at the start of the year as it struck me that CSU really seemed to have it.  My working definition of this would be an organisation that sees you, recognises you and responds to you.  I think we will all have had the experience of engaging with organisations who seem the very opposite.

My sense is that by and large we do a pretty good job of this at CSU, although I would also be sure that at least some people will have different stories to tell.  However, for a university I think we should be aiming to sustain a strong sense of community and to be seen to have a soul.  If you don’t mind some gentle implied profanity, I quite liked Jonathan Fields ‘Commandments of Epic Biz’ and I’m also taken with Seth Godin’s notion of developing tribes.

So to roll on from this, in my presentations and through this blog I am looking to prompt some further discussion about what we should be trying to achieve as a university and about how brave we might be in thinking about that.

Have Universities Lost the Plot?

Let’s start with the question of whether the higher education system still has a soul.  Richard Hil has recently had a book published called ‘Whackademia: An insider’s account of the troubled university’.  I have to confess that I have not yet read this book but, from the publicity and from listening to Richard Hil on LateNight Live, the theme is broadly that things have gone downhill and it’s all the fault of corporatist university leaders and government bureaucrats.  My thoughts are that (a) things are not entirely as bad as this would suggest and (b) only some of it is the fault of university leaders and bureaucrats (although some of it undoubtedly is).  I believe there are systemic features of higher education which have led us to the current situation.

To focus in a little on the teaching and learning mission, one of the issues identified is whether we are being too instrumental and vocational in our approach to education.  In the promotional material for Richard Hil’s book on the web page he quotes an academic as suggesting we should think more about ‘peace, love, beauty, living sustainably, being an active citizen, getting along with your neighbours, building respectful relationships, becoming ethically and spiritually reflective, mindful, truly globally attuned with an altruistic rather than individualistic bent’.

Personally, I would fully endorse this set of aims and I don’t see a conflict between them and developing effective professionals.  On the contrary, in discussion with industry leaders they frequently complain that graduates are too vocationally focused and don’t have breadth of view.  (One energy company leader told me he really likes engineering graduates who can quote Shakespeare because it demonstrates they have a broader grasp of humanity, for example).  I am also of the view that events such as the Global Financial Crisis demonstrate the need for professions to take a wider moral view of their actions.

I don’t think I am alone in this. If you read anything about the history of universities, you will usually find the senior leadership embracing a broad view of education and encouraging inter-disciplinary studies.  And yet, most institutions get drawn towards discipline specialism and narrow technical focus.  Why is this?

One of the things that happens in the university system is that disciplines develop their own logic and power.  This is expressed in a structural sense by the desire of Schools or departments to protect their EFTSL streams and squeeze out other electives and in an individual sense by a desire for academics to teach their own speciality.  Both of these tend to lead to curriculum that is biased towards technical discipline content and therefore works against exposing students to breadth. This is a feature that has been actively managed in the history of CSU’s forerunners.  In Theo Barker’s history of Mitchell College he notes that a controversial restructure was partly to overcome Departments “… devising units that seemed likely to be popular and pushing them through the system onto the approved list … a Department presented a united front on such matters.  However, all Departments stood alone because each was indifferent to the woes of its rivals.”  As we have seen with the ERA process, there is also generally a higher value placed on abstract theoretical research and again this tends to drive academics towards pursuing speciality and theory.

Another issue is the systemic drivers of corporate finance.  Bill Massy, who was the Chief Financial Officer of Stanford University, gave a seminar a few years ago for the LH Martin Institute.  Part of what Bill presented was a mathematical proof that you can’t starve a not for profit organisation into following its mission.  This is because as money gets tighter, the organisation becomes more and more desperate to get its hands on discretionary income and hence behaves more like a for-profit corporation.

Of course, as long as people want to be paid to come to work, money is required.  I think that universities have probably always been somewhat guilty of chasing money (the reputation of vice-chancellors on this score has neither greatly improved nor worsened over the decades).  However, in response to the tightening of finances through the late 90s and early 2000s, I think Australian Higher Education did become a bit too focussed on finding ways to add to the bottom line without considering the fit to intellectual mission.  I don’t personally think there is necessarily a conflict between the profit motive and social good, but I do think we need to be clear about what our intellectual aims are.

For The Public Good

I will mention that we do talk about the mission and vision of CSU in a number of places, but nowhere do we any longer specify what they actually are.  ‘For The Public Good’ is of course the University’s motto, taken from Charles Sturt’s writings on his experience as an explorer.  Consistent with this, to borrow from The Castle, there is ‘the vibe’ about CSU of an institution committed to social good and its communities.  I therefore hope that what I’m going to lay out below chimes pretty well with what people are feeling.

From discussions at Vice-Chancellor’s Forum, I gather we have not managed to settle on an explicit mission for several reasons.  First, we are a very complex institution and therefore we have hit the usual problem on trying to formulate a mission, which is that everyone can object to something.  Second, I think we are conflicted about the notion of ‘regional’ as we are not sure whether this is a good thing to line up behind or not.  Third, there is the healthy scepticism about managerial nonsense and that we might end up with, to quote Scott Adams of Dilbert fame, “a long and complicated sentence which demonstrates management’s inability to think clearly”.

I will split it up with some thoughts on who we should think of as ‘the public’ and then subsequently on what we might mean by ‘the good’.

Who Are ‘The Public’?

So, first ‘the public’ and I believe this has to be the communities in our footprint in regional NSW.  I will start by saying I love the notion of regional.  I have lived in regional Australia ever since arriving in the country and I love these communities.  I have experienced regional Australia as friendly, vibrant, authentic and a place where people and their lives are important.  There is a wonderful sense of connection and community in regional Australia.

In Canada earlier this year I came across a wonderful quote from Greg Curnoe, a painter from Ontario in Canada who founded a school of painting called London Regionalism.  He said:

Provincialism is what people do when they live, as they think, ‘out there in the sticks’ and they try to imitate what they think is hip in the big centres.  Regionalism is simply what people do when they are at ease with themselves in their own environment.

Universities are a critical part of regional communities.  Some universities in the United States have begun to use the term ‘anchor institution’ to describe themselves.  An anchor institution is one that is a significant economic, social and cultural player in its region.  One of the tests is whether you would move your headquarters somewhere else.  In pressing people on our regional mission, this has been one of my litmus test questions and the answer is always ‘no, we would not’.  It is also worth noting that the CSU Act specifies that we should pay

…  particular regard to the needs and aspirations of the residents of western and south-western New South Wales

There has been a concern that embracing regionality might mean we put off students from metropolitan areas.  However, survey work conducted last year for the CSU branding exercise shows that students see us as “hard-working & practical; friendly & down-to-earth; environmentally minded; promotes individuality – no discrimination, equal chances”.  I would suggest that this perception matches perfectly the values of regional Australia and hence is true to our nature and appealing to those outside our region.  For a university that takes a serious interest in wine, I have suggested that there is an analogy there.  Wine is a product that is enjoyed globally but whose origins are an essential part of the reason for drinking it.  Likewise, we can attract students because of who we are, not just because of where we are.

The final point about regionality is the importance of engaging with Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous communities.   Indigenous people are a significant section of our home population and if we are to serve our community we must take educational achievement for Indigenous students seriously. Engaging with Indigenous knowledge provides cross-cultural competency (a critical skill in a globalised world) and also contributes to what Jack Manning-Bancroft, CEO of AIME, has described as a ‘richer sense of Australian identity’.

To build off that last point, to me regional and rural Australia is at the heart of the sense of Australian identity.  Many of the things that Australians are admired for abroad including friendliness, egalitarianism, honesty, directness, practicality and doggedness are in part founded on the history of engaging with the land.

Our intellectual agenda, including our approach to research, should therefore be based on the issues of our region.  A true university is one that is networked beyond its home region and therefore we should work with anyone in the world who shares our concerns.

What is ‘The Good’?

In relation to a university, which primarily affects what’s in people’s heads, my descriptors for this were:

  • ‘To lead a satisfying, fulfilling life and to strive for this for others’

or perhaps:

  • ‘Whole, wise, strong professionals in whole, wise, strong communities’

However, in reading the nominations we had made for Indigenous Elders’ awards, I was taken with a concept from Wiradjuri which is yindyamarra winhanga-nha, translated as ‘the wisdom of respectfully knowing how to “live well in a world worth living in”’.  I thought this was a lovely formulation and have asked the Elders if they wouldn’t mind if we borrowed it.

To map this into the kinds of people we are trying to foster in our communities, I would argue we need people who have the following qualities:

  • People who are excited by learning.   My belief is that the emotional kick from the ‘aha’ moments you experience through learning, scholarship and research is what keeps people interested in and committed to learning.  The desire to pass on this passion to students and the community is reflected in teaching, research supervision, publication and engagement.
  • People who have gumption.  I took this term from Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance a long time ago.  Pirsig says “A person filled with gumption doesn’t sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He’s at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what’s up the track and meeting it when it comes. That’s gumption.” The Dictionary provided on Apple Macs defines gumption as “shrewd or spirited initiative and resourcefulness”.  Both seem to me to fit well with what is required to make an employable graduate, an excellent professional, as well as the best of the spirit of bush practicality. I do recognise that, unfortunately, people now tend to associate gumption with a particular brand of bathroom cleaner.
  • People who appreciate the physical, spiritual and the intellectual. To have a healthy community, I believe you need to have a sense of a full human life.  This cannot be founded on intellectual pursuits alone.  Again, as a university with strong interests in areas such as agriculture, wine, theology and Indigenous knowledge we are well placed to engage in a broader sense of human understanding.
  • People comfortable with themselves.  To be comfortable in your own skin, it helps to understand your own cultural background and what has shaped you.  Getting an insight into others’ cultures and worldviews is a powerful way to look back upon yourself and develop this understanding.  As the poet Robbie Burns said, “O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us. To see oursels as ithers see us!”
  • People committed to community.  In addition to the above, there also needs to be an explicit commitment to developing and maintaining community.  I think this fits well with interests like Policing and inter-faith dialogue, as well as covering disciplines like social work and journalism.

I think these attributes fit well with, but I think slightly expand on, the eight commitments in the CSU Degree Initiative.  Through the CSU Degree Principles we do have a commitment to including breadth in the curriculum and ensuring all graduates have exposure to Indigenous knowledge, sustainability, ethics and global citizenship and internationalisation.  I realise this is a significant task and is providing a lot of work for the Course Directors and Course Teams, but I believe it is important work.  However, we may need to have a look at better theming the initiatives we currently have around teaching and learning.

Closure

I was excited to come to CSU, and am excited to be here, because I think we are a very distinctive institution.  As noted above, we are an anchor institution for our communities, we have a very diverse and interesting academic profile with a holistic view of human life, we are focussed on education for the professions and knowledge with a practical outcome.  We are still a young and dynamic institution; part of the feedback I have been given by stakeholders is that we are an institution that is able to get things done.  Also, we are not too seduced by our own importance.

Early this year, James Haire, Director of our Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, talked to me about their work in inter-faith dialogue being about encouraging people to ‘bring their whole selves to the table’.  I really like the idea of a university that welcomes the whole person and to go back to the start of this, that seems to me to fit with the notion of an organisation with a soul.  I am very mindful of encouraging and nurturing that in my time as Vice-Chancellor.

So, I will look forward to continuing to discuss these ideas with the aim of pulling together a more explicit mission statement or narrative over the next month or two.

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