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Have we been here before?

How will university strategy be impacted by the pandemic? and what are the most important long-term drivers of change ahead, local business links or global digital disruption? These are two of the biggest questions facing our sector as the cycle of reappointment and renewal in leadership continues across 39 Australian universities.

News emerged recently that Geraldine Mackenzie has been re-appointed as Vice Chancellor of University of Southern Queensland for a second term. The same week saw Scott Bowman re-emerge in a top job at CDU, after a brief period at WSU, following his leadership of Central Queensland University. And last week we have seen Martin Bean of RMIT step down. This brings to 17 the number of VCs to be replaced since the start of 2020. Others have noted that of 15 appointments to date, 4 have been women, and none are Indigenous, which raises many other issues particularly on International Women's Day.

There will continue to be re-appointments, or new starters, in the top job and we must hope for greater diversity. A number of current VCs began terms in the middle of lockdowns and during the campus and digital upheavals of 2020. In many cases they saw advantage in adopting the crisis as a burning platform. Maybe those most disadvantaged have been leaders who had inked in, published and launched, ambitious plans in 2019. Some had visions of new campuses, revenue growth, and expansion in international students. Those plans need rethinking right now.

I feel sure Scott will be on to the issue of CDU strategy pretty soon. Now a new contract for Geraldine at USQ has been announced, how is she seeing the next phase in the development of one of our regional universities, with a reputation for both serving local communities and delivering distance education? The VC from the Darling Downs was a recent guest on episode 18 of HEDx. She outlined her vision for the next phase of her leadership.

She described how plans, that had been underway as the next strategy for USQ, had to be suspended. This was to allow the impacts of the pandemic to be fully considered. That strategy has now been concluded and coincides with Geraldine’s next spell at the helm. As she outlines in the interview, USQ will have an increased focus on translation in research, and transformation in teaching and learning experiences and university operations. Both are to respond to the challenges and opportunities the pandemic has created. There is also a greater emphasis on external engagement, to reflect the support USQ receives from companies and governments in the region. It comes in areas of specialism such as health, agriculture and other sectors.

The question was posed of whether the traditional USQ strengths of external engagement, aligned with regionalisation with some of the tree changes of people’s living preferences, would be the dominant strategic influence? Or would USQ’s reputation and experience in distance education allow the university to take advantage of the move to online and digital learning, and the larger global digital disruption taking place?

Geraldine considered this to be a key question for the sector more broadly, but that we might not all know the answer yet. My view is that it might be necessary to make a call on this sooner rather than later if any of our universities are to position themselves well for the period ahead. Should we focus on migrating the current business model with greater business links or change the model completely. Twist or stick?

This is a tough time for all university leaders, new or established, as it is for staff and students. There continues to be widespread uncertainty and ambiguity. Some are seeing a return to a new normal as something to prepare for. Others are expecting a more enduring digital disruption to be the wave to catch. As with all waves, timing is probably critical. Go out too soon and there is a danger of being dumped. Leave it too late, and rivals may surge ahead, leaving you stranded, waiting for another opportunity. It might never come.

The HEDx podcast series has concluded interviews with a number of Vice Chancellors across the nation in the last 6 months. Some that were appointed in the middle of the pandemic, are now seeing opportunities to differentiate and run their own race. Others who are mid-term, appear more focussed on sharpening their current strategies.

And then there are those from outside of the sector that are seeing an opportunity to enter and disrupt. They are looking to take advantage of executives distracted with restructuring, budget repair, returns to campus, change management, and maybe strategic indecision.

The landscape of Australian higher education has certainly never been more dynamic. Its leaders might have never been under so much pressure, and felt more alone and isolated from government support, and public sympathy.

It is a time when the best leaders might shine and thrive. The normal pecking order of things might change. It reminds me of one of my former places of work in the UK, and what it did when in 1981, the UK higher education sector was plunged into chaos.

Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister, was overseeing radical reductions in public spending that included 15% average cuts to university funding. The cuts played out differently between institutions. Salford University had a 44% reduction in its government grant. Its newly-appointed VC, John Ashworth, arrived to an institution in crisis. He responded by helping differentiate Salford through a “wholesale change of strategy”. By committing to be a university of enterprise and seeking external support, Salford gained partners, and a relentless focus on industry relevance. This served it well for decades. Salford developed a shared purpose and got everyone behind it. Well, enough people to make a difference at least.

Maybe there are some parallels here with what Geraldine Mackenzie is about to unleash as a second term VC’s post-pandemic strategy at USQ. And parallels with what Pascale Quester and Duncan Bentley are pioneering at Swinburne and Federation University in Victoria, and which they shared in episodes 10 and 15 of HEDx respectively. The response made at Salford University 40 years ago certainly aligns with the first major speech by our new Minister Alan Tudge and his call for closer university and business links.

Of course, there wasn’t a parallel global digital disruption in the background in Salford in 1981. I wonder what John Ashworth would have done if there had have been?

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