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.


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.


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.


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.

16 thoughts

  1. So who’s the Swedish Chef?

    There are businesses which allow for a certain amount of chaos in the way they go about things – they encourage it, it’s part of their approach to innovation etc. But in universities the call to “be more like a business” often seems to be about a call for more order. Whereas serendipity could be one of the defining characteristics of universities, for more than a thousand years, and possibly what makes them institutions (in the same way the Church or State or family is called that) rather than simply organisations, in the usual sense of that word.

  2. One of my standard lines on managing a university is that it is like managing a set of creative industries – because all the disciplines have their own culture. I don’t have a problem with thinking about a university as a business – because we all want to get paid. However, we want the best aspects of business thinking and absolutely for it not to be ‘just a business’.

  3. Yes agree, it’s not an either/or. What’s interesting (for me) is how some of the best, most long-running businesses have borrowed that sort of creative chaos universities were more known for – the influence goes both ways, and that’s productive, and the best universities marry both.

    The US government releases statistics on the success rates of new business, and overall only 44% of new business survive more than 4 years. That means you have a better chance of smoking and surviving than of setting up a business that will last. Yet universities go back 1000+ years. They’re genuine institutions, and I think the corporate governance literature and practices for example don’t always recognise that. Interestingly corporate governance today is heavily populated by lawyers, which is both a possible conflict of interest in the division of powers sense, and helps to explain its very heavy emphasis on audit and accountability and process, while often neglecting the essence of all governance – politics.

  4. One of the things that worries me is that businesses are usually expected to make a profit in terms of money. I sometimes wonder does this prevent us from capitalising on investment in human capital in say courses that don’t have that many students but are vital to the countrys wellbeing and the investment pays off when the students go off and make valuable contributions to industry. One that comes to mind from our School is Horticulture.

  5. I reckon all commercial businesses do what universities do – some things make a loss but are continued for strategic or profile reasons, some things clear a little bit of margin and some things clear a lot. For businesses, the trick is to make a big enough profit to keep the owners or shareholders happy, for universities the trick is to be ‘not for loss’ and optimise the societal and academic contributions. I have mentioned in internal discussions that sometimes the view in universities is ‘everything needs susbsidising except for things that can just break even’. Clearly, you can’t have this if you want to be ‘not for loss’ and thrive into the future. It is generally reckoned that research requires financial subsidy from teaching revenue – but equally teaching requires intellectual subsidy from research. Similarly I would agree that we will want to subsidise some discipline and course areas (possibly some campuses) because of their strategic importance or value to the community. Overall, though we can’t subsidise everything so we need to think about a normal expectation of margin from the teaching courses. This will mean we have room to invest in strategically and socially important things. And of course we need to think about how to use our efforts as effectively and efficiently as possible to minimise unnecessary costs.

  6. I have always thought of Universities as Communities, and within that there should be an ongoing dynamic of industry, leisure, commerce, administration and spirituality (hopefully not to narrowly defined) for all within the community -and this is what places the University within the larger society and draws the wider world into the University. Does CSU have this quality? Perhaps not to the same extent that Merrylees saw it, in the days of the pre- CSU institutions, when along with gender, community was rather more fixed than fluid in the minds of most. I’m not sure that CSU is exactly what a Riverina University would be. One of the corporate challenges of CSU is its multi-campus/multi-region/multi-community identity and hence the need to revisit this topic of identity and mission so frequently – and that’s not a bad thing.

    Anyway in the interests of Standard Muppet Spirituality Disclosure – I thought I was Fozzie, I suspect others saw/see me as Waldorf or Statler?

  7. I am always worried about the use of the words business and university in one line. Not that I am disagree with sound principles (which rule every household in the country as well) like staying within budget, limit waste and duplication and so forth. However these are ‘common sense attributes’ that are not uniquely attributable to businesses. These are attributes that every (publicly funded) organisation should hold in very high regard.
    What makes universities unique is indeed the community of scholars, the community of students, staff and their place of living/being (plenty of different places in the case of CSU). The value of a university is in the constant supervision of the learning and development of its students, the upgrading (for want of a better word) of their knowledge, their skills and also their citizenship. We would like to think that our students leave CSU with specific course knowledge in their baggage but also these hard to define and assess skills like critical thinking, ethical thinking, analysing skills, not believing Allan Jones and more.
    So sometimes these factors should overrule the ‘common sense attributes’ as stated in the answer to John Harper’s question, however it should never be the other way around. Under the now discredited neoliberal paradigm, financial and bureaucratic control of universities has happened at an unprecedented speed and with little convincing evidence of its added value. Let’s just make sure that ‘For the public good’ will not be overruled by ‘for the bigger profit’.

  8. Really enjoyed Ken Robinson’s talk. If we are educating creativity out of our children in schools, might we also be educating innovation and independent thought out of our university students as we strive to meet the arguably narrow competencies of our accrediting bodies. Competencies that do not necessarily keep pace with the rapid pace of change, with differences between metropolitan and regional populations and scope of practice. As educators are we able to encourage creativity while still having the required tick from our accreditation bodies? Might the collective clout of vice chancellors be able to tackle the absolute power of accrediting bodies while still maintaining the integrity of the professions and genuine innovation and independent
    Are we also striving for sameness and consistency in our delivery of subjects? Might it be better for preparation for life and work if we allowed and encouraged diversity in delivery? The excellent speakers who ran the first year transition talks suggested students need and value sameness but perhaps this is not in the long term best interests of independent learning and innovation, and ability to cope with change.

  9. Hi Wouter, would reiterate the comments in reply to John. I’m using ‘business’ in the generic sense which, to refer to earlier comments from Tony Kolbe, is only one metaphorical lens through which to consider a university. I can’t stress enough that there is no overall financial profit for the university (we are not for profit) but we will need to consider how we balance the need to make a margin on some activities so as to support others. For me, the whole point of foregrounding ‘For the public good’ in the university narrative is as a touchstone in considering that.

  10. Two thoughts from me. I think accrediting bodies have their job to do but there is always some creative tension between their focus on discipline and broader objectives the university may have. It is one force that restrains breadth and different disciplines are more or less enlightened on this. This came up in discussion with the Course Directors this afternoon.

    On the second point about diversity, I think considered and intentional diversity can be good as part of considering the dramaturgy of a course. Accidental and needlessly confusing diversity is probably less good, particularly when trying to help students acclimatise to university.

  11. Agree with both thoughts. I think the second point about diversity might be more to do with a question of degree. To share an example from the coalface – second year group of students – an extra reference occurred to me during a discussion, so I quickly wrote it on the white board, in case they might like to look it up before their assignment. The response “so will you put that on interact”.

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