Strategic Positioning

As noted in the last post, I want to use this blog to facilitate a collegial and hopefully innovative process to establish a clearer sense of where and what we want CSU to be in the future, and later what we need to do to get there. This will also be important in enhancing our current University Strategy 2011-2015.  I’d like to kick the discussion off with some context and a few points from my own perspective.

First the external climate and our strategic positioning, in which I would highlight relevant external influences:

  1. Competition. Much has been made of the demand-driven system for students in encouraging competition in the sector, and it has.  However, I think it’s worth noting that in the previous system we still had competition, but it was damped down by the Federal Government controlling numbers so there was quite a bit of lag between changes in demand and response.  The ability to change load quickly has freed up the thinking of all universities and it seems many universities are getting more aggressive and also thinking more broadly about institutional strategy.
  2. Funding/resourcing. Both Labour and Coalition are firm that there will be no significant new money for higher education from the public purse.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  One is the general pressure on national budgets and the other is that most politicians believe there are few votes in higher education in the general sense.  It is a significant political issues within electorates, and particularly rural and regional electorates.  My view would be that whilst we have not had everything we wanted following the Bradley Review (such as a 10% lift in base funding), and we have had some things we didn’t want, we have done pretty well out of the current government.  Not least it should be pointed out that they have funded significant expansion of the sector.  I would not realistically expect $/EFTSL to increase from here or at least not without having to work harder for it.
  3. Online Learning Bubble. Online learning has suddenly exploded as an issue and apparently College Presidents in the US are talking about little else.  This is on the back of initiatives such as the Khan Academy, MITx and of course everyone in the developed world’s access to bandwidth and technology.  I think it highly possible that there will be a global investment bubble in this area.

To turn to how we ought to position ourselves in relation to this, I think it is fairly simple.

  • First we need to be, to borrow a phrase from Michael Hammer, Easy To Do Business With (ETDBW).  In other words, we need to have systems and processes that encourage students in, rather than drive them away.  This is the aim of our Student Experience Plan in the 2011-15 Strategy although I think we might wish to review whether we have everything covered there.
  • Second, we need to have attractive, distinctive courses that transform people’s lives.  Attractiveness is something we have always thought about in higher education – will anyone want to study courses if we offer them?  Distinctiveness we have paid a bit less attention to but in a crowded and competitive market I think we need to make sure we have a clear answer to why someone should want to come and study with us.  Transformation we have aspired to, but I’m not sure whether we have focussed on this enough either.  There has been a tendency to focus on technical content rather than the life change that happens through studying a program.  Initiatives such as capstone programs and practice-based education are good initiatives in this space.  Again, the Course Profile Plan in the 2011-15 Strategy is focussed on this space.
  • Third, we need to lift our perception of quality and also demonstrate intellectual leadership for our communities and the nation.  I do not believe a university’s reputation rests solely on its research performance but it is a critical factor and we do need to improve it.  The Research Plan in the 2011-15 Strategy covers this space and the Faculty Compacts are a significant investment to this end. I like the term intellectual leadership which I think gives a better sense not only of developing knowledge through research but also disseminating that knowledge to students and engaging in shared learning with industry and community.

So, we have a strategic plan that covers the bases, what else is there to do?  I see everything in our current strategy as relevant and necessary, but we will be faced with a large number of choices in a potentially turbulent and deregulated market.  In this context, from my perspective we are still lacking clarity about our overall mission, institutional story, or narrative as I have called it.  This is because we are a complicated and diverse institution.  We have great on-campus facilities and experience but we are the largest provider of DE in the country.  We pride ourselves on our regional engagement but we also teach a lot of metropolitan students.  We have science and theology and we have policing and arts.  We have communities that range from the truly inland such as Dubbo through to the Coastal such as Port Macquarie or Sydney.  We have variously described ourselves as a university for inland Australia, a university for the professions, a university devoted to its regions, the largest distance education provider in the country, a university devoted to partnership and so on.  We are all those things and more, but I think we can find a more powerful expression of what we are truly about.

Some of the foundation work has been carried out through the strategy development process over the years and some through the brand development work completed last year.  I do not think we need to overturn what has already been done or to start from scratch but I would like to facilitate a conversation around this so that with a new Vice-Chancellor and two new Deputy Vice-Chancellors coming we can be sure we are all on the same page and focussed.

At the end, I don’t think we will have something as simple as a tagline but nor will we have something as complicated as we currently provide when asked for our Mission.  I don’t think this is something that can be simply dictated by the Vice-Chancellor so I would like to facilitate some broad discussion in its development over the coming months.

I am keen to hear your comments in response to this and future posts (use the ‘Follow this Blog’ tool to the top right of this page and you will get email updates).  I would also like to explore using online tools to gather information.  We are using a site called All Our Ideas to gather thoughts in this space.  If you would like to take part, please add your votes and own ideas about the things that shape CSU’s distinctive place in Australian higher education on our ideas page at …

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Looking forward to your ideas and contributions.

13 thoughts

  1. Thanks for the blog, i know people read it and appreciate it, even if they don’t always comment. in a nutshell I think the thread that links all of our strategic priorities and the way we’ve always worked is that CSU brings knowledge to life. It finds ways to plug knowledge back into the lives people are living, in their professions, communities, and organisations. And it builds new knowledge in those spaces through its research, so it’s not just about ‘applied knowledge’, it’s about making knowledge a full part of the ecosystem of peoples’ diverse lives, from whatever background and location.

  2. Thanks to both of you. Education for the professions is undoubtedly an absolutely core part of what we do. Others would make that claim too of course (Swinburne perhaps) so my concern would be about whether its truly distinctive? As noted, we do it very differently to others and that is distinctive. In relation to research, I like using the term ‘intellectual leadership’ because I think it gives a broader sense of what we are trying contribute which covers research, teaching and engagement. In other words, research is critical but it’s part of a broader agenda and, if you get it right, this allows a clearer discussion of what kinds of research ought to be important. That is, I’m assuming we don’t want just to crawl our way up the rankings olympics for the sake of prestige alone. I like the idea of ‘bringing knowledge to life’. I have toyed with thoughts around creating whole, strong, wise communities but I don’t know whether that sounds a bit too old fashioned?

  3. The most famous unis in the world are definitively old fashioned 🙂 But I think the idea of bringing knowledge to life captures the professions, DE, community engagement, research etc. and closes the loop on all of them – what we’re doing in each of our areas is injecting knowledge into the way people live and work. Bigger than building careers, or regional development, or research (but inclusive of those) – it’s about using knowledge to build a wiser community, in how it lives and works. Not sure what form of words works best to capture that idea though. I guess simplistically we’re a uni who injects the “how” and “why” into the “what”, “where” etc. of everyday life and work.

  4. Thanks for the blog Andrew, it’s great to have a space for dialogue.

    I think the simple answer to questions of competition is “reputation.” But different universities generate their reputation in different ways: history, research ranking, graduate employment, and so on. City kids still travel out to Bathurst to do the Journalism degree just because they have heard it’s good. There might not be a one size fits all method to generate reputation in our courses.

  5. Competition – I half heard a news item on ABC Central West this morning about UWS extending a campus outreach into the district and we have significant advertising for UC in the Marketplace in Wagga Wagga – how do we address and reposition ourselves to encroaches into what has traditionally been ‘our territory’?
    Cheers for the blog a great communication tool and I have never twittered but I guess I have to open my troglodyte eyes and engage!

  6. Thanks for the blog. It is great to see interaction with staff. One of the difficulties is coming up with a strategy that encompasses the distinct nature of CSU. Another is letting go of the past when required. There is often reference to CSU being the largest distance education provider in Australia. The reality is we are rapidly losing market share in this market and cannot hope to compete head-on with the marketing clout of Open Universities, or the investment in online systems by private providers and others, hence beware of the “Online Learning Bubble”. Arguably, we do have a niche in “flexible and blended learning” (as opposed to online learning), particularly when we focus on the needs of local communities. With the professions, we are leaders in some, strong competitors in others. and absent from many. I believe one of our strengths distinctive to CSU which has not yet been fully enunciated is the fact we have multiple physical (and virtual) “points of presence” across a vast geographic area. Similar to the banks we should see our “branch network” as a strength, rather than an overhead cost. At a local campus level we know our students and local community well. We can cater to local need via the CSU institution which has expertise in drawing these local needs together, and delivering high quality teaching and research. Whilst this is coordinated at a centralised level, it is delivered to a diverse plethora of local communities. No other university does this as well. One strategy CSU could adopt is to partner with a range of stakeholders such government, information technology suppliers and others, in matching the needs of local communities (broadly defined), with not only the educational resources we currently provide, but which we can build upon in collaboration with appropriate partners.

  7. Echoing the comments of others, I think it is great to have a space like this to discuss the future directions of CSU.

    I’m really pleased to see some critical thinking about the role of research within our strategic directions and I like the term “Intellectual Leadership” as a way of capturing some of this thinking. I think sometimes we have our research and teaching agendas running as competing streams of our work with no clear sense of how one supports or strengthens the other. I’d like to see a serious discussion about the philosophy (and dare I say it the business model) that underpins our research activity. Does the income we earn for research pay for the cost of undertaking it (including the 30% workload)? I suspect not and so we need to be clear on the reason we undertake research (because all good universities do it, because we have a shared goal of contributing to the knowledge base of society, because it improves our teaching, because it’s part of our identity as academics). Once we are collectively clear on the purpose of undertaking research as an institution we will be in a better position to make decisions about what kind of research to do, who should do it and whether all should do the same amount (e.g. if the purpose is status or income generation then perhaps those who have demonstrated the capability to do research that increases the university’s status or generates income should do more than 30% and others perhaps less, whereas if the purpose is supporting teaching then there perhaps needs to be a serious debate about what kinds of research and/or scholarship will support our teaching most effectively).

    The other thing that I think has been missing a little from the CSU discourse in recent years is a clear message about the importance of high quality teaching. Even though the bulk of our income comes from our teaching activities many academics hear messages about the value of research but very little about the value of teaching. For example, I think many of us involved in learning and teaching leadership are really concerned about the slow pace of change towards adopting contemporary approaches to online learning and teaching at scale (as distinct from pockets of innovation). I think some serious thought needs to be given to the way we support and value teaching focussed academic staff and the importance of innovation in teaching and ongoing renewal of our curriculum. And maybe part of this needs to be an acknowledgement that a more intensive focus on teaching (beyond 60% of workload) may be appropriate for some of our leading teaching academic staff and rather than seeing this as a lesser role than that performed by a research focussed academic we might see this role as of equal or higher status (especially since it is teaching which brings in our income and which we are most known for at this stage of our history).

  8. To run a blog is a great idea, I hope the larger university population will access it and make use of the forum it presents. I’ll be posting the link to my staff group.

    Having worked in a number of regional universities (in Australia and overseas), with this being my 1st non-academic role, I strongly support a competitive environment. It presents challenges, but also opportunities. Those who thrive in a competitive market need to be proactive, not reactive. We do need a more strategic position that reflects who we are and what we represent and I look forward to seeing how this develops.

    Having had the benefit ofworking on both sides fence, academic and general staff, it is clear to me that high quality and meaningful courses that are well taught, and research activity,are critical components of a successful institution. What is also clear to me is that students also measure their university by its support activity – sport, clubs and recreation; welfare, advocacy and equity services, high standard and available space, and the provision of well maintained and low cost amenities. A plug I know, but a sincere one nevertheless.

  9. Thanks for your post Andrew.

    I wonder what we lose by automatically conforming to the market driven/ economic rationalist paradigm of higher education and making this what drives our decisions and indeed the ‘mission’ of CSU. Surely we need a clear identity for better reasons than merely marketing and competition?!

    In this this article in the London Review of Books Stefan Collini makes an important point about the direction about higher education in Britain:

    “Since perhaps the 1970s, certainly the 1980s, official discourse has become increasingly colonised by an economistic idiom, which is derived not strictly from economic theory proper, but rather from the language of management schools, business consultants and financial journalism.”

    and later in the article:

    “the model of the student as consumer is inimical to the purposes of education. The paradox of real learning is that you don’t get what you ‘want’ – and you certainly can’t buy it. […] [I]t is cheap and empty rhetoric to suggest they [Universities] exist purely to ‘serve students’, especially when this is really code for ‘respond to the expressed wishes of the consumer in the way other businesses have to do”

    and again:

    “Another feature of the current BIS-speak [The Department for Business, Industry and Skills] that pervades the White Paper is the replacement of analysis of desirable goals by the pseudo-measurement of ‘consumer satisfaction’. The central concept here is ‘the student experience’, part of the individualist subjectivism by means of which market transactions hollow out human relations. The model is that of, say, a hotel guest, filling in the feedback questionnaire on the morning of departure. Was ‘the guest experience’ a good one? Did you find the fluffy towels fluffy enough?”

    This is obviously quite controversial in the current situation in both Australia and Britain, but I think the article is worth a read. It raises real issues for the way we speak and think about higher education.

    So I know it needs to be easy to do business with us. For example, if you ask a student about the Student Central phone queues they will tell you about how difficult things can be. But why is dealing with a University (or being taught by a University) framed in terms of ‘doing business’? It is ironic, I think that big business is where the experience of the endless phone queue originated. We must be careful here, because this kind of discourse is insidious and damaging to any helpful conception of higher education.

    Secondly, why are students automatically called ‘the market’? What assumptions are implicit in this description? Is there a possibility that we might attempt to teach well for any other sake than the notion that we could perhaps steal potential students from other institutions?

    I am not some old bloke whining about the good old days. I’m 30. I’m relatively new here. I went to uni during the Howard years, commuting from Macquarie Fields (Southwest Sydney) to a Sandstone institution and paying for it as I went by working various part time jobs.

    I just reckon that we could try swimming against the tide of economic rationalism once in a while…

  10. Do we have some recent data on the ‘typical’ DE student? Your typical DE student doesn’t sound like the majority of students we are seeing in our DE classes. They are much more diverse- parents with young children who are planning a return to the workforce; school leavers who didn’t want to or couldn’t move to study on campus (too far, family responsibilities, medical or metal health issues and many other reasons are heard frequently); people who have been in the workforce for a while, hate it and are studying something completely unrelated; people who are studying just to keep life interesting. Do we need a better understanding of who our DE students are (and who else might be a student if we market things a little differently)?

  11. Hi Prof Vann,

    My name is James Crane, and I am a Lecturer in Anatomy and Physiology (School of Biomedical Sciences). I have been at CSU for almost 2 years exactly. Having spent most of the rest of my post-PhD life in full-time research positions.

    Like everyone else, I appreciate your opening up discussions like this, and there a number of points that you raise that are clearly at the core of how CSU will move into the future.

    I am going to limit myself here to only a few points.

    Firstly, while “teaching for the professions” is a good tag-line. I wonder whether it is a bit out of date now. The world has change immensely in the last 20 years, and determining what is a profession, and what isn’t, is quite hard. When I had the opportunity to ask Prof. Goulter about what the definition of a profession was, he responded that it was anything for which you required a degree to do the job. At present we are moving towards the goal of 40% of Australians with University degrees. As such, very shortly almost every job you can think of will require a degree as a starting point (it is almost that way now). The other issue with the “teaching for the professions” tag is that we have no idea what jobs/professions will exist in 15 years time. We risk simply preparing students for the jobs as they are now, not for the way their jobs (or other jobs) will be in the future. On the basis of this, I feel that CSU should more seriously consider increasing the number of generalist degrees. These degrees may not necessarily lead directly to a job. However, they tend to have a greater focus on understanding concepts (and links between concepts), critical thinking, evaluation skills, and flexibility of thought. In a world where content is free (plenty of online providers and universities providing content to anyone free of charge), the only thing that a University education might be seen to give you is that training in how to think, and how to be innovative.

    Secondly, there has been a little bit of comment about what CSU should research (no doubt under the pressure of what ERA means for us). I think this question is a bit early. The big question, is how does CSU want to set up its research structure. If we continue with the “everyone must research” idea, then you will in large part have to research what your academics want to research. Sure, you can make some strategic appointments into areas of strength (if there are enough applicants), but at the end of the day you can’t tell someone with an already established research track record what they should research. The other way that CSU could go is to decide what research areas that it want to focus on, then cluster all (or the vast majority) of research into these centres. These would follow the model of other centres around the country – full-time research with 5 year appointments and a performance review at 3 years. These centres would become the power houses of research at CSU. However, establishing these centres would require an investment in money and time, and would precipitate discussions about more “teaching focused positions”. Although, teaching focused positions also lead to improved teaching quality and course profile development. Also, some areas will need to have research. For instance it will be hard to attract (and retain) qualified scientists to teach into courses if they are not able to see how their research careers are going to be supported.

    Finally, certainly in the science fields, “if you build it, they will come”. If CSU commits to building, equipping and maintaining world class research facilities, researchers will come. This university, and all of the campuses it is located on, offer an amazing opportunities. This is especially the case for mid-career post-docs, with young families. They are often tired of being told what to do, and simply want an opportunity to show that they can mix it with the best in the world. They are also looking for a place where their research ambitions don’t negatively impact on their family life. Simple things like living close to work and cheaper housing, make CSU a very attractive proposition. This sort of opportunity is not offered to mid-career scientists very often at the big universities located in big expensive cities, and where the competition from the experienced, big guys is stifling. So, CSU could position itself as a University that supports up and coming researchers. One that is looking to give the next generation of researchers (especially women researchers) a chance to shine. Apart from getting these researchers when they are hungry and willing to put in all the extra hours required to build a career, you also in the vast majority of cases get excellent lecturers. Lecturer who are so passionate about science that they have decided to spend a significant part of their life dedicated to its advancement.

    In my short time here it has become apparent to me that CSU has the potential to be a really innovative and energising force amongst Australian Universities. But, it needs to really work out where it want to go over the next 10 – 20 years. Obviously, discussions like this feed into that plan, but inevitably it is the executive level at the Faculty and above that will set the agenda.

    With this in mind, I really do appreciate the opportunity to comment.

    Thanks again.

  12. Thanks for the opportunity to provide feedback on the direction of CSU. I have recently been a stuident of CSU, am a resident of Bathurst interacting with a number of professions who employ CSU graduates and am involved in secondary education with a role in advising students of the opportunities they can take advantage of post secondary school. My comments are targetted at undergraduate courses and are drawn from a range of faculties where I have had exposure.

    Firstly, with regard to my own educational experience. I was very disappointed with the online experience I encountered. The organisation of the course was disjointed and it was rare to find someone to take responsibility for their course. The content delivered seemed to have little to do with the primary objective (education) and lots to do with promoting the research conducted by university employees. I feel unhappy that I am in a position to recommend to others to seek tertiary education courses elsewhere, but this is the reality of my experience.

    I have friends who are employees of CSU and others who employ CSU graduates. The history of CSU is in training for specific professions – it has offered more applied than theoretical qualifications. I think the university has drifted from this approach and is languishing in a middle ground where it is addressing neither applied nor theoretical approaches well. There is certainly scope to offer both but a clear distinction needs to be made as to which need is being addressed by which course.

    The online world certainly offers great opportunities for motivated students. It would seem an institution that does not operate successfully in this space suffers a competitive disadvantage in their overall educational offering. CSU has a good platform to build on here. However, cost pressures seem to have had a big influence on reducing student contact hours, both on a per week basis and weeks per year. I see the quantity of material being covered reducing, leaving students less able to compete in a global market for their newly acquired skills. The challenge is to set high standards for the attainment of an undergratuate qualification, comprised of relevant quality material and quantity covered. A tough ask, I know, but one that can be achieved by focussed integration of face-to-face and online presence.

    I have seen too many times in the commercial world misinformed management bereft of clear direction reach for the restructuring levers. This often ignores the underlying issue of lack of focus and direction, and ultimately fails to deliver any real benefit. I feel there is a gap between what CSU is delivering and what it can deliver. The steps to bridge this gap will not be easy, so I don’t envy those taking them but Look forward to a time where I can recommend CSU as a place to study and consider it for my own future post-graduate education.

    Please accept my comments as constructive. It is a positive step to seek input from the community you serve and I seek to respond in kind.

  13. Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to the conversation

    When viewing the University Strategy 2011-2015 it is clearly stated that CSU is committed to excellence, integrity and sustainability in teaching and research for:

    Our students
    Our professions
    Our communities
    Our staff

    As the chair of the Young Shire Council Education committee, I would like to comment that CSU is the destination of choice for more than 30% of students attending universities. This is a fantastic representation from the Young area at CSU.

    One issue that arises from this is that these students are required to relocate to Wagga, Albury or Bathurst to continue their tertiary education.

    As a forward looking university I hope CSU will be able to work with the Young Shire council to look at innovative approaches that will cater for rural students.

    Approaches such a study centre that will allow for online units to be studied and a university equity partnership.

    The Universities Strategy and commitment to students and communities would be achieved by such small but significant initiatives.

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