Start of 2017 Academic Year

Welcome to the start of the 2017 Academic year.  I have to confess that I got blocked in writing the first blog post of the year by events in world politics and wondering about the role of universities is in a ‘post-truth’ era.  But I’ll come back to that in a subsequent post.

Yesterday I went along with other staff to greet new students and parents arriving in the residences at Bathurst.  We are holding similar events across our campuses.  It was really great to see the new faces and to welcome everyone back to campus – it always seems very quiet without the students around.  A week ago, I and other members of the Senior Executive met with the Resident Assistants (RAs) as part of the training they receive before taking on the role.  This is a wonderful way to start the year as the RAs are a very impressive and motivated group of people. It’s also a great opportunity to hear first hand how they are finding the University.  They do a terrific job of setting the tone and culture in our residences and we are very proud of them for this and the support they provide their fellow students.

I mentioned in the last post that we will be rolling out the new 2017-22 University Strategy over the first half of the year.  At this point, our Director of Strategy, Planning and Information, David Bedwell and his team are working with various areas to fully scope and define the content of the strategic goals.  Stay tuned for more updates on this as the work progresses however, at this stage I am really happy to see the direction progressing with our communities, students and our staff in mind.

As a final note, last year we had four staff taking part in the Royal Far West Ride For Country Kids and this year myself and eight other CSU staff from across our campuses are taking part.  We have been working with Royal Far West on a number of fronts given our shared interest in promoting rural and regional health and we hope to do more in the future.  This year the route is 420km over three days starting from the CSU Wagga Wagga Campus and finishing at CSU Orange Campus.  The teams are made up of Executive Deans Tracey Green and Tim Wess, academics Greg Linsdell and Johnathan Hewis, Gethin Thomas and Elizabeth Dunlop from the Research Office, Liz Smith from Office for Students and Nicole Rogers from Student Admin as well as a friend of Nicole’s, Andrea Anthony.  Everyone has been training hard for this and I have been relieved to find that, despite a slack period over last winter, I don’t feel as exhausted as I was last year after the 100km+ rides on the weekends.

Last year overall the ride raised $650,000 to support Royal Far West’s work to improve the health of disadvantaged rural and regional kids and their families.  The fundraising pages for the two teams are here:

https://rideforcountrykids2017.gofundraise.com.au/page/AndrewVann0

Any support gratefully received!

This Thursday 23 February, I will be cooking a BBQ (proudly supported by Cheers) to raise money for the ride on the Library Lawn of the Bathurst Campus.  It will run from 12 – 2pm. If you’re in Bathurst, please come along and say ‘hi’ to welcome in our first term of 2017 during O Week and help raise some funds for this great cause!  Hoping to see as many of you there as possible.

Enjoy 2017.

 

2016 Close

The main graduation week is now done with only Port Macquarie to go, and that means it’s very close to the end of the year.  This has been a very big year for us and now we’re at the end of it, I think it’s important to reflect on the achievements of staff and students and their contributions to our communities.
I know that the transition to three faculties and the common support model has been challenging and that we are still bedding down some of the processes and practices.  I met with the Heads of School a few weeks back and they commented that having helped others through the change process they were now feeling it themselves.  As we have mentioned before, this has been one of the biggest change processes the university has done and I am very proud of the effort and commitment that staff have put into making it successful.  I do appreciate we still have a way to go on this.
Hopefully, staff have seen the videos and information to promote the revised values framework.  Built from our ethos of yindyamarra winhanganha, “the wisdom of respectfully knowing how to live well in a world worth living in”, the four values of insightful, inclusive, impactful and inspiring seem to have resonated very well.  Given that they were created from consultative workshops with staff this is not surprising, but I have been pleased to see how people are using them to guide the thinking within the various areas of the university.  Many staff have been taking part in the Values Ambassador programs to help continue to spread them and I look forward to the continuation of that work in 2017.

As I mentioned, it has been a year of great achievement and perhaps sometimes it can be hard to see the big picture across the University from our individual areas. This year, we have put together just a small selection of statistics and facts about exactly what we have acheived this year. I would urge you all to take a look – it is a snapshot so it doesn’t have everything in there, but it is a very impressive reminder of the scale and achievements of staff and students in a very busy year:  2016 Achievements

At the last meeting of Council, the new Strategic Direction document for 2017-2022 was approved.  This has been built on the back of the strategic foresight exercise that was carried out, and the four possible scenarios for 2030 created as part of this were posted on Yammer.  The new strategy will be worked through, planned and explained in more detail next year, but the three big areas are engaging with our communities to help them build their future, transforming our learning and teaching and finally to underpin all of this, building our internal capability.

There is no doubt that the higher education sector is increasingly competitive and we can’t stand still.  Some of the new strategy will be a continuation of work done on the existing plan and some will be new.  I am ever mindful of the complaint that there are too many things happening and we have tried to make the new strategy structure as simple as possible while still hitting the major initiatives we need to pursue.  There will be devil in the detail as we work through it and we will have to make sure that we can resource and deliver the changes we are looking for.  There is significant budget protected for strategy and we have learned a lot through the Program Logic model being used for the current plans so I am confident that we can do this.  We expect that the strategy will be split into three two-year phases so that we have some shorter chunks of work to concentrate on.  I have just signed a renewed contract with the University Council for another five years and, given I don’t think you ought to keep a Vice-Chancellor for very much longer than 10 years, that should allow some transition time for the next incumbent.  But there’s a long way to go until we get to that.
Aside from beginning on the new strategy next year, we will also negotiate a new Enterprise Agreement, undertake an independent review of the three faculty common support model implementation, and will once again ask our staff how they are tracking in the Your Voice Survey.  Given the comments in the last Voice Survey around communication, we have tried some different approaches to communication this year.  I have done smaller more conversational roadshows focussed on particular work areas across the campuses (although the Faculty of Science ones  ended up being pretty big).  Toni Downes has done her regular communication around the Faculty changes.  We had the multi-media rollout of the new Values framework.  There have also been changes to the Staff web page in line with the overall revamp of the website.  The Staff Hub has been delayed a little because priority was put on the Online Course Brochures to assist with student recruitment.  The planning and pilot work has informed the Staff web page refresh and the new version is currently planned to go live in May.  Communication is something you can never do enough of, so we are always interested to hear ideas or feedback on what does and does not work.
As I mentioned at the start, we now have only Port Macquarie graduations to go to.  This year I wasn’t able to get to all campuses, sadly missing Dubbo and Orange, but in the last week I did officiate at ten ceremonies from Parramatta to Melbourne, Albury, Wagga Wagga and Bathurst.  It’s a huge week, but it is just wonderful to meet the graduating students and their families and be able to celebrate their success.  We had some amazing graduation (and graduate) speakers, and in a very emotional moment, Cheryl Honey accepted a posthumous Honorary Doctorate for her husband Geoff Honey who we tragically lost this year.  Geoff’s parents were also in attendance and it was fitting to be able to pay tribute to his work and life – he will continue to be greatly missed.
I want to thank you all for the work you have completed throughout 2016 and I wish you all a safe, happy and restful Christmas and New Year break.
See you in 2017!

June Update

It’s hard to believe we are nearly half way through the year and perhaps even harder to believe that in our perpetual higher education Groundhog Day, we still do not know what the future of higher education funding and policy will be. I will come back to this point.

Load

The significant good news at the start of this year is that based on the good results from first semester we are predicting an increase in commencing load this year of about 5%. This is the result of increased marketing activity, increased focus on conversions and I am sure the excellent performance of the University in terms of graduate outcomes. It has not been the case for all universities and I want to thank all the University’s staff for the work they have done to achieve this result.

Workforce of the Future

One of my side jobs is to chair the Executive Committee of AHEIA, the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association. At the end of last year AHEIA commissioned PriceWaterhouse Coopers to look at the future of the workforce in higher education. Although it sometimes said that universities are slow to change, we have seen enormous growth and change in the sector over the last 20 years. On my reckoning, one of the most significant changes is the degree of specialisation and casualisation in the academic workforce. Both of these, I think, have been in pursuit of increased productivity and the second has been a risk management approach. University funding has become much less certain as a more market-oriented approach has been taken by government. Acknowledging the growth in higher education funding as the system has grown, governments of both sides have raided the higher education budget to pay for other things. Labor was going to use it to fund Gonski and the Coalition have attempted to meet overall budget strictures.

What has been less talked about is the fact that over this period, full-time research and teaching academic positions have grown very little – about 8% between 1996 and 2014. I suspect that these staff members – particularly those at levels B, C and D – are still doing the bulk of the academic administration and management work for the now much bigger system. I therefore think that the complaints we hear about the pressures on academic staff have some justification. I believe it is time we rethought what we expect from academic staff and acknowledge that the academic management aspects are as important as teaching, research and engagement.   In the case of CSU, we revised our promotions policy in 2014 and we will be keeping an eye on this to ensure it is delivering the things we  want for staff and the University.

Federal Budget

In parallel with the Federal Budget, the Government released an options paper which, it seems, was meant to leave options on the table while also neutralising higher education policy as an election issue. Right up front I need to say that the Government’s budget shows that they still intend to cut 20% of government funding from higher education places. It is surprising to me that there is so far not very much commentary about this – which amounts to a $2bn cut across the forward estimates – but perhaps we have all got used to the idea. From the point of view of universities perhaps this is not so bad because – at first glance – it seems the revenue would be made up by increasing costs for students. Estimates vary on the impacts of this but currently students pay about 40% of the cost so we would be looking at an average increase of about 25% in costs to students.

The arguments that are usually advanced for doing this are:

  • the HELP system provides interest-free, indexed loans which means no-one has to pay upfront costs;
  • students bear an equal proportion of the cost because of the private benefits;
  • there is concern we are creating too many, or too many of the wrong sort of graduates and that increasing costs will help to make students think more carefully about choices; and
  • international and local evidence suggests it is quite difficult to deter people from studying because they understand how important higher education is to career advancement.

Arguments in the other direction are:

  • an awful lot of students are not school leavers and may in fact be making repayments because they are already working;
  • OECD studies show that the public returns to higher education in Australia already outweigh the private benefits;
  • one of the biggest costs of study is students’ time and they already have powerful incentives to take their choices seriously;
  • it’s difficult to deter students from studying, but loading the costs onto graduates alone is tantamount to increasing tax rates for them; and
  • there is legitimate concern about the impacts on equity as a result of increasing costs – acquiring a university degree does not reset your lifetime economic circumstances and there is a risk that this will have a disproportionate impact on lower-income earners.

I lean towards the second set of arguments, but I think we need a good debate about these issues. It was notable in the discussion about fee deregulation that the most enthusiastic advocates were those universities with students from the wealthiest backgrounds, I would be very worried if the higher education policy of either side of politics slipped through without scrutiny.

Murray Darling Medical School Bid

We have continued to push our medical school bid with the Federal Government and with other parties and candidates now that the election has been called. The proposal has been widely supported and government has acknowledged the value of it in addressing maldistribution of doctors in regional and rural areas. It is very frustrating that the Government has supported a new school in Perth at Curtin University and funding for a new node at Gosford for Newcastle University, both of which are in metropolitan locations and very close to existing schools. There is a strong suspicion now that the only thing that leads to a medical school being approved is electoral advantage as both of these announcements seemed to be linked to marginal seats. I trust that this is not the case, and that we will soon get an announcement on the Murray Darling Medical School. It is certainly not credible to argue that new medical schools cannot be approved and this reinforces the importance of continuing to fight for a solution for rural and regional people.

Strategy Development Process

We are currently going through a strategy foresight exercise to plan for our 2017 and beyond strategy. This has had involvement from a range people across the University, including Vice-Chancellor’s Forum. The process has developed a systems map of the external forces acting on the University and four particular scenarios are being developed which will be used to test our current strategic thinking and set the scene for the revised strategy. The aim of all this to deepen our understanding of our operations and environment so that we can face the future more confidently.

Three Faculty Structure

We are now approaching the cutover to the new three Faculty structure. Last week I met with the Heads of School and heard that, understandably, staff are feeling some apprehension as we approach it. This is a big change, and there is a lot of effort going into training staff and communicating the changes. As per the messages sent out to all staff by the DVC Academic, Toni Downes, the details will be communicated in the next couple of weeks as we run up to the change over. I want to thank all staff for their efforts to support this important restructure.

 

Final Post for 2015

I’m writing this as graduations for 2015 draw to a close. It has been a big year in which a lot has happened, including a lot of change. I am very proud of the achievements of staff and students throughout this year and in particular of our staff for maintaining their focus on students while we have been going through the change process.

Graduations have been, once again, a wonderful occasion. I aim to get to at least one graduation from each Faculty and at least one at each campus and by the end will have been to every campus except Canberra. It is a very special day for the students and their families and, when there is the opportunity, it is great to hear a little of their story as they walk across the stage. I wanted to thank all the staff from across the University who have been involved in the graduations process and a particular thank you to academic staff for processing and being there for the students. For the first time we held a graduation ceremony in Port Macquarie where we congratulated about 130 graduates, some from Port but some who had also studied via distance and online education.

In research, on the last set of audited figures, which are for 2014, we increased both income and publications significantly against 2013. The Excellence in Research Australia (ERA) results, which were released earlier this month, also show that we have grown the number of areas of research rated at world class or above significantly from the previous round in 2012. We now have 16 compared to 9 in 2010. This is a testament to the great work produced by our researchers, the vast majority of it addressing issues in our communities. We also have our first ‘5’ rating, or well above world standard, for Horticulture which includes wine production.

I am looking forward to 2016. We are now almost at the end of appointing people to the new Common Support Model structures in the Faculties. Once again, I acknowledge that this has been a disruptive process for staff and I know that some staff members are still waiting on the outcomes of appointment processes. However, my sense from the staff roadshows conducted over the last couple of weeks is that people are turning their minds to the new structures and want to be sure that we get the best out of them. I would like to thank all staff involved in this as it has been a significant effort both for applicants and those making the selections.  As advised last week, we will cut over to the new structures in the middle of next year in between the two major sessions. Planning is underway at present for the training development to support staff moving into their new roles and details of this will be advised in the first few months of next year.

The Engineering and Law programs will commence at the start of next year, and student numbers for these programs are looking healthy. The new Port Macquarie Campus build will also be complete in February and is a great building which will be an excellent home for the students and staff there.

We have increased our marketing activity this year and while it is early days, this is showing promising signs for 2016 with numbers forecast to increase from 2015. It is clear that the whole sector has become a lot more competitive. Applications and offers are strongly up but we still need to be attentive to conversion to encourage students to choose us – this will, I think, be the new reality. However, at least on the current figures we appear to be adapting well.

I have mentioned in the staff roadshows that CSU has achieved some amazing things:

  • During 2013 we had the largest number of Indigenous students and completions in Australia. The 2014 figures have now been released and University of Newcastle have overtaken us again – we have 908 and they have 914 so it’s still pretty close.
  • We are the largest provider of postgraduate IT education in Australia.
  • We are the world’s largest provider of university education in law enforcement, counter-terrorism, emergency management, customs and border security studies.
  • Our 15 year partnerships with four Chinese universities are among some of the longest of any Australian university.
  • Our graduates continue to enjoy some of the highest employment rates in Australia.
  • The Veterinary Science School had commented that with a 97.1% teaching satisfaction rating in the UES survey (and an approximate 3% error bound), no-one in the country could be shown to have a better teaching rating in the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT) indicators. This is indeed good and prompted us to go looking where the raw number placed overall. Vet Science is in the top 6% on this basis, but it turns out that CSU Occupational Therapy had the fourth highest ranking in the country out of 1000 university/subject area combinations. Unfortunately, the Occupational Therapy subject area has been removed from QILT so this isn’t easily visible, but it does show that we have some terrific ratings for our teaching.

Being Vice-Chancellor of CSU is an amazing and privileged role to have. To close off, I wanted to let people know that I am in the process of finalising a new contract with the University Council to extend for a further five years beyond the end of my current contract period, which runs to the end of 2016. I do hope and intend to be here until the end of 2021. CSU is making a real and positive difference in people’s lives and for its communities. To my mind, there is no better contribution to make than that.

I wish everyone a peaceful and safe Christmas and a very Happy New Year.

 

PS: At the end of February, we have entered a CSU team in the Royal Far West Ride fundraising ride for Country Kids.  Royal Far West have provided health services to rural and remote children for nearly 100 years.  We have been finding ways to collaborate with them as our missions are strongly aligned and we have had dental students placed at their Manly site.  The ride is 380km over three days from Port Macquarie to Coffs Harbour. I will be taking part along with Dr Tracey Green, Greg Linsdell and Johnathan Hewis from the Port Macquarie Campus (pictures taken at the graduation this week).  They are all very much fitter than me and what seemed like a good idea a few months back is now coming round at a rapid pace.  If anyone would be generous enough to support the team, the fundraising page is at http://rideforcountrykids2016.gofundraise.com.au/page/CSU-Ride4CountryKids

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October Round Up

Service Improvement Program and Faculty Restructure

Over recent months we have been focusing on the change processes surrounding the Service Improvement Program and more recently the Faculty restructure. Change is never easy and there have been a range of comments on the process ranging from it not having happened fast enough, to there not having been enough time for consultation. Clearly, there have also been objections to the nature of the change as well as the process.

As I have stressed in presentations to the University community, while the proposals were crafted as carefully as possible before being released, the consultation process was genuine. We expected that the proposals would be improved by feedback received and in my view this is what has been achieved. In particular, the issues raised around support for research students in the Faculty structures have a lot of merit and the DVCs Academic, Professor Toni Downes and Acting DVC RDI Professor Mary Kelly have been working on proposals to address these concerns. I am also confident that we will have a set of good options for a three Faculty structure to be considered by Academic Senate at the end of October.

The higher education sector is now very much more competitive and we need to ensure we can deliver reliable and consistent service to students. This is what we need to get out of the restructure and we will work through this as rapidly as possible so that we can give certainty to staff, bed down the change and be able to concentrate on our teaching, research and engagement.

Updates to CSU staff on the process will be issued over the next few days.

International Comparisons and Global Rankings

Over the last few months I have attended a number of international conferences and events. These were the World Association of Cooperative Education Conference in Japan, an invited presentation to the South African Regional Universities Association Leadership Dialogue in Cape Town and the Talloires Network Steering Committee in New York.

There are several key messages out of these meetings.

  • Universities around the world are facing the same set of issues. In all countries, there is recognition that a well-educated workforce is critical to delivering economic productivity, good health outcomes and reforming the economy to meet environmental sustainability imperatives.
  • Online education is having a profound impact on pedagogy in all universities. Even if some universities have engaged little in this space, they are taking a very active interest now.
  • As access to higher education has expanded there is an international dialogue about the quality of education and research, and what funding models are required to allow universities to effectively meet social needs.
  • There is concern over whether universities are focused on their own selfish interests or are actually devoted to improving their societies and economies.
  • There is also concern about the place of global rankings systems in this and whether they are driving good outcomes. As noted in the previous blog post, the Talloires Network Call to Action in 2014 challenged the rankings providers to consider community engagement as part of their schema and Times Higher Education is considering how this might be done so hopefully we can see some progress on this front.
  • There is a lot of interest in Australia as a country. This is based on our long tradition of excellence in work integrated learning and distance education (and CSU is seen as a leader and exemplar in this). Other countries are also interested in the higher education policy settings in Australia. The HECS HELP income contingent loan scheme is widely regarded as world leading and of course people are interested in how the demand-driven system has played out and the Government’s fee deregulation proposals.

Out of all this, I continue to believe that CSU is extraordinarily well positioned to succeed over the coming decades. We have expertise and a track record in delivering the very things that governments and communities are asking for – expanded access, educational value-add and deep engagement with communities and industries.

The good news

As it’s been a while since the last blog post, I did want to note that CSU is once again the successful tenderer for the NSW Police Force education contract. This is for a further 5+5 years and means that all new NSW Police Officers will continue to graduate with a CSU Associate Degree in Policing Practice. This maintains CSU’s significant strength in policing and security education where we are one of the world’s largest providers.

Recently, the Centre for Customs and Excise Studies also achieved accreditation from the World Customs Organization, these are the only English language programs to be accredited by WCO.

Last week we received the news that we have accreditation for our new Law program which will be commencing in 2016. Along with Engineering, which will also commence next year, these programs are designed to be flexible and allow students to mix work and study. Both are aimed to be innovative, distinctive and to fill workforce needs in regional Australia. However, the programs will also skill graduates to be successful nationally and internationally. I would like to thank the teams involved in both programs for the enormous amount of work involved in their development.

Deregulation and Policy update

Last week the Minister for Education, the Hon Simon Birmingham announced that the Government will, at least for now, withdraw their legislation to cut government support to universities and deregulate fees and that this will not be reintroduced until after the election. Since it is far too late for the legislation to be implemented for 2016 in any case, this is very welcome news.

Federal Labor have also announced their policy structure for higher education which would guarantee per student funding and maintain the demand-driven system. The Minister for Education has announced that he will engage in consultation with the sector about policy futures.

This week, Universities Australia also released a policy blueprint for Higher Education.  This argues for investment in higher education and research for the future welfare of the nation.

I hope this will now be a chance to have a better debate about the future of the sector and how we can arrive at funding policy that will deliver the education, research and engagement that the country needs. We will be arguing strongly for the needs of regional communities and students over the months to come.

Student Numbers

While the higher education sector continues to be intensely competitive, we expect to finish the year around 2% up on 2014 student numbers. This is a testament to the work that has been done by staff across the University to promote CSU and its courses to students. However, projections still show load plateauing in subsequent years and hence the need to continue to focus on converting offers to acceptances in line with the strategic direction of the University to ensure a sustainable future. In any case, the success in the mid-year round is an encouraging sign for the future and 2016 is shaping up to be an exciting year for the University and its students.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

May Update

Now at the end of May and way past time for another blog post. There has been a lot happening over the last couple of months.

What Are Universities For?

There were two events in Canberra in the same week at the beginning of March. The first was a British Council Global Education Dialogue on ‘Catapults to Commercialisation – How Can Universities Use Their Research More Effectively’. At this, UK universities shared their experience of research commercialisation and engagement. It was interesting to me to see how far university thinking in the UK has come. From memory, universities had to be steered and bribed by the government into taking industry engagement seriously but have now embraced it as well as the benefits. One comment, in relation to managing the academic enterprise as being like herding cats, was that you need to move the food bowl. This is on the basis that academia is a prestige, rather than a financial, economy and academics respond strongly to prestige indicators.

The second event was the Universities Australia conference. The conference was interesting in that there were much stronger themes around industry engagement and social outcomes and less discussion on how we push Australian universities up the global research rankings. To my mind, all of this was good.

The opening address of the conference was from Michael Crow who is the President of Arizona State University (ASU). A charismatic and compelling speaker, he spoke about the approach they have taken at ASU to the ‘New American University’. He had a nice metaphor of conventional notions of university esteem being based on a “metal railroad of status” which require universities in front of you to pull over into a siding before you can improve your own position. From his standpoint this means defining universities in terms of who they keep out rather than who they include. He argues that for ASU it was much better to take a different route and they have sought to increase access and define themselves by who they include and by how well they work with industry. They have carved a distinctive niche for themselves and have made significant improvements in retention.

ASU’s approach to strategic planning and student focus were influential when we reviewed the CSU strategy in 2012. I visited ASU last January and know that using residences and socialising students well was a key part of their strategy. They also have an excellent at-risk monitoring system for their students which allows them to target support quite carefully. I know that Michael’s talk resonated with a lot of people, and many regional universities in particular felt that he spoke to the sense of mission that they share. I think it struck a chord generally with the concerns that universities may have begun to lose sight of their purpose and I suspect that we will see a lot more debate about if not a ‘New Australian University’, at least a renewed idea of the Australian university. Not before time in my view and I have already heard a number of Vice-Chancellors referring to Michael Crow’s vision in describing their own institutions.

Also at the conference, the Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, spoke and amongst his observations pointed out that there is a significant mismatch between the profile of the research done in Australian universities and that of the economy. Going back to the issue of higher education being a prestige economy, we do need to find ways to celebrate success in more than just international journal publications. Last year, the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) proposed an Impact and Engagement for Australia index to complement the Excellence in Research Australia (ERA) exercise and the Australian Technology Network of universities also commissioned research on the impact trial in the ERA in 2011 as well as a report on how to improve the relationship between universities and industry which encourages current government initiatives like the Industry Growth Centres.

Talloires Network, Engagement and Global Rankings

Thanks to a suggestion from Jan Reid AC, formerly Vice-Chancellor at University of Western Sydney, I have been elected to the Steering Committee of the Talloires Network of universities dedicated to Civic Engagement. CSU has not previously been a member of this but we are in the process of joining. The Leaders Conference held in December 2014 in South Africa noted the tension between community engagement and the agenda that is being driven by research-focussed global rankings schemes.

I have noted in some of my commentary on the fee deregulation issue that I do not know what tangible outcomes arise from having a certain number of universities in the Top 100 or Top 50 of any of the rankings schemes. I also think that we seem to be placing far too much reliance on rankings, both in terms of their accuracy and in terms of what they represent. For example, in the Time Higher Education (THE) Rankings, University of Melbourne has been the top ranked University appearing between 2011 to 2015 at 45, 43, 39, 43 and 41. Now, universities are reasonably slow to change and the THE rankings are based significantly on reputation surveys so it’s not as if we are dealing with a precise scientific measurement. However, in some of the press commentary there was a bemoaning of the drop of Australian universities from 2013-14 and a celebration of the increase from 2014-15. It would seem much more likely to me that the rankings are only accurate to +/- 10% and we probably should be thinking about much longer-term trends. On top of that, in the particular case of the THE Rankings, the assessment of teaching quality is based on staff-student ratios. This is a meaningless and unhelpful measure of teaching quality in my view. For all of these reasons, we have decided not take part in the THE Rankings for now at least.

Federal Reforms and Federal Budget

In March we also saw Minister Pyne’s deregulation reforms defeated for a second time in the Senate. It is really not clear where the government will go from here although the Minister has said he will re-introduce the reform package again. The Government is sticking to the line that the reforms will pass, although I can find few people who believe this. Of course, keeping the reforms as proposed legislation allows the Government to count the savings they have proposed which includes the 20% cut to Commonwealth Support for Universities and this is part of their explanation as to how they will reduce the size of the deficit.

We have just had the 2015 Budget announcements and one of them is that the money to pay for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Scheme will come from the Sustainable Research Excellence Fund (SRE). This is in fact a cut of future increased funds so the SRE money will not reduce, but it will not increase as fast as was planned. The SRE funds were to help support the indirect costs of research based on the Bradley and Lomax-Smith reviews which identified that universities were underfunded. Once again, when budgets get tight, government have little compunction about raiding university funding.

The Government also announced that the Office for Learning and Teaching would be abolished and its functions put out for tender to universities. I think this is a shame. The Australian Learning and Teaching Council was an independent national body through which academics could demonstrate that their work in teaching and learning was achieving national and international prominence. Moving this under the wing of the Department of Education as the Office for Learning and Teaching diminished this and spreading it across universities will diminish it further. Going back to the idea of higher education being a prestige economy, it is important that academics are able to claim appropriate kudos for their work.  I think the sector will need to ensure that we create structures which achieve the equivalent effect.

Vice-Chancellors and Chancellors Visit to Wagga Wagga

On 18th and 19th May we welcomed the Universities Australia Plenary meeting of Vice-Chancellors and the University Chancellors’ Committee meetings to the Wagga Wagga campus.  The Mayor, Rod Kendall, hosted a civic welcome at the Wagga Art Gallery.  Since Rod didn’t use it, I pinched one of his lines to say that Wagga is the centre of the universe because it’s halfway between Sydney and Melbourne, halfway between Auckland and Perth, and halfway between New York and London – if you fly the right way. I also reminded visitors that Wagga can also claim a critical cultural contribution as the (admittedly fictional) birthplace of Dame Edna Everage and the little known fact that the Eurythmics started in a Wagga hotel.

The visit was a great opportunity to showcase the facilities at Wagga including the National Life Sciences Hub, the Veterinary Clinic and Equine Facilities and the Animation Laboratories.  From the feedback we got people really enjoyed it.  For the visitors, the end was marred slightly by an enormous thunderstorm but the locals were just glad of the rain.

February Update

So, getting towards the end of February and time for another blog update.

Welcome to New Students

This week we have ‘O’ week and get to welcome a new crop of students to the University.  I met the new students in residences at a welcome ceremony on Saturday.  One particularly nice aspect was to meet a pair of our alumni who are Mitchell College graduates and married after meeting here.  Their daughter is now starting to study with us so we hope it continues on through the generations.

Federal Reform Process

I thought I’d start with where the Government’s higher education reform proposals are up to.  It is a little hard to tell but, despite Minister Pyne’s dedication, it looks pretty unlikely that the reform package will get through in anything like its current form.  I’m basing this on what I can tell coming out of Canberra and the public statements of cross-benchers.  Many people will heave a sigh of relief about this, but I seriously doubt that it means we will simply continue with the status quo.  The Minister has indicated that funding for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Scheme and Future Fellows is in doubt and it is not clear whether the government has a Plan B.  It is also not clear what policies the Labor party is intending to advance.  I hope that we will get some clarity about this in the not too distant future so that we can plan with some certainty and provide advice to students.

Service Improvement Project

We have been looking at ways of finding efficiency within our operations and this has been split into two streams.  One of these is looking at how we organise administrative support across the Faculties and the Divisions.  In this, we really need structures which allow us to concentrate on improving our service to students and academics.  This work will continue through the year.  The second stream looked at a number of services which other universities have outsourced and has tested whether external providers could deliver them more cost-effectively.  Staff were advised on Friday about the outcomes of this.  I am pleased that, for the most part, we are delivering services at a cost that matches or betters external providers.  I also want to thank staff who identified additional efficiencies through the process that will provide significant savings, all of which help to balance the budget and reinvest in academic outcomes.

Strategy Reload

As mentioned in the last post, we are finalising the sub-plans in the 2015-16 Strategy document.  Members of the Senior Executive are working to ensure that we understand all the cross-linkages between the plans.  These documents will be the structure in which our activities are conducted, and budget is allocated over the next two years.  These are the critical priorities we need to attend to if we are to be successful.  Once the plans are completed, we will move on to look at critical measures associated with the plans so we can monitor our success.

Wellness and Wellbeing Expo

Coming up over the next month or so is the Charles Sturt University Wellness and Wellbeing Expo.  The health of staff and students is really important to us and there is lots of information and stalls to help people think about how to pursue a healthy lifestyle.  I attended the Bathurst expo last year and met a range of really interesting people – I would encourage everyone to go along.