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Launching the good ship “opportunity”

Updated: Sep 14, 2020

Working in and around Australian universities in 2020 is certainly different! And most of the commentators are speculating that 2021 will be even tougher. Or will they be times of opportunity? And how do we ensure we give equal attention to both sides of that coin?

Some university leaders will say that “we had a pandemic in our risk register”. But if we did, had we given as much thought to how we would be finding new revenue streams, as reducing expenditure? And where are we up to right now in pursuing both? In a balanced way, that ensures that what survives, is positioned and shaped to thrive. Can I suggest that an early candidate for the word of 2020 is “pivot”? Or have we all given up on that already?

The system of managing, leading, governing, working and studying in universities is like being on a supertanker. They have largely remained unchanged for decades in speed, direction and trajectory. This is despite many commentators on the way the winds, waves and tides of digital disruption, industry engagement and lifelong learning, have been flowing. The hulls and bridges of supertankers are hard places to be. We, and more so the world that watches us, see them as slow and cumbersome to redirect towards calm water and new ports.

Well, the times of casual and speculative commentary, from the sundeck or shore, are surely over. It’s time to sink or swim. And when water is pouring in there are two choices as I see them. Bail out the water, or plug the holes. Preferably both of course.

Most universities in Australia right now are hard at work in planning, communicating and preparing for steps to take to reduce expenditure in what is left of 2020, and into 2021. They have shelved capital plans, slashed travel and consulting budgets, established the extent to which Enterprise Agreements can be varied, and are now developing short-term plans for sustainability, largely by cutting jobs.

These plans are focused on what teaching and learning offerings to cut or streamline because they don’t pay for themselves, fulfil institutional mission, or build reputation, and what research activities are either loss making, or not quality enhancing in terms of rankings, engagements and partnerships. There is also the long overdue removal of duplication in professional service provision between centre and the academic heartlands.

Two thoughts come to mind. Isn’t this shifting deckchairs on cruisers that long went out of fashion. And, why weren’t we all doing this operational optimisation anyway?

But will cutting costs get us where we need to be on the voyage ahead? Most of the plans give a nod to the idea of new revenue streams and transformation. Having moved all courses online in a week in March, there appears to now be the ubiquitous commitment to create digital campuses, whatever they are. They look like replications of physical ones to me. We can do better than that.

The discounted micro-credentials called for by Government have had most of us sign up, because we had to. They lose money. And the previous commitments to philanthropy and industry engagement are being revisited for how, seriously impacted personal wealth and corporate health, can be tapped by universities.

But the paucity in agility and innovative thinking, due to the lack of a burning platform for decades, has left our contingency plans under-developed for transformation and growing revenue. They are an as yet unrealised opportunity that is out there, to be discovered, now.

Education and re-skilling have never been more needed, by a population that’s has never had more time on their hands, or experience in digital engagement. Science is being respected again, by people whose hope for the future lies in labs and clinical trials. We are seeing value in health knowledge, and humanities expertise, as personal, family and community priorities. Regional National Party Senators are becoming champions of social work for goodness sake. And our corporate base needs help with innovation and reshaping more than ever.

Now has to be the time to lift our heads, and to launch the opportunity to build new revenue streams. The water will keep coming in unless we fill the holes. Bravery and boldness is called for, to redirect resources planned for physical campuses for ever-growing numbers of international students, to direct towards generating ideas, products and services for new revenue streams, to suit new needs and priorities. Never has the expression “all hands to the pump” seemed so apt.

The smartest survivors of the current tempest will surely be those that not only launch the lifeboats to save the crew and passengers, but also steer the ship to calmer waters. Let’s bless them and all that sail in them.

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