The age of alignment. But what to?
Updated: Oct 14, 2020
This feels like a landmark week in Australian higher education. The budget had a few positive surprises, but on the whole continued known trends. There is a commitment to research funding for the short term. There is more funding for micro-credentials at the discounted rate, that might attract new entrants to the sector. But will it cover the costs of existing mid ranking institutions? They might be starting to feel stuck. And the Job Ready Graduates package is finally through. The remaining uncertainty is whether student and university behaviour in response will create the changes it is designed for.
It is of course mostly too little too late. It will not shift the dial on the plans that were being prepared to get budgets approved by the end of the year. Universities still need to radically reduce their costs for the short term. A number are publishing plans to reorganise and restructure. Doing this causes grief to those seeing careers threatened. It also does for those that remain, anticipating a future with fewer colleagues. It means less support for the greater work burdens they will face. Maybe there is some comfort for institutions and individuals in the emerging clarity. I hope so.
The importance of making stronger links with industry are very clear. What is also clearly emerging is the need for alignment. For institutions, alignment needs to be of their future strategy with what we now know. Which must mean change. Will they change the areas of their focus on research? Will they focus on a move to online and micro-credentials and set up a cost base or operations that make that possible? And will the push to industry engagement encourage some to seek to differentiate this way? Can any universities realistically pursue all three of those strategic priorities, and do them well and sustainably? Or will this be the time we see much greater institutional differentiation and specialisation?
What seems clear is that this is a time of real disruption and transformation. Things will never be the same again. The idea that all universities pursue the same goals, and ignore the threat of new entrants to a digitally disrupted sector, are surely gone. And the idea that every academic pursues research, teaching and learning, and service and engagement, in stable and ubiquitously well-resourced and supported academic heartlands, is of a former generation.
I see this as the age of alignment. We might need a renaissance perhaps. And I am sure there will be some enlightenment down the track. But the re-alignment, that needs to come first, has a number of dimensions. There may well be some new golden rules and natural orders of things and we might need modern day scholars of the order of Fibonacci to help us through the maze.
Universities need to build alignment of culture, collaboration and common purpose from the remnants of restructures, rationalisations of programs, and redundancies. This will be hard yakka. People will be tired, angry, disillusioned, and scared. They are resentful that none of this was their fault. Restructures will take time to settle. Chaos will rule for a while before rebuilding starts. They will need to seek alignment of purpose and focus in new structures that are created, often with new leadership. And all of that will be made most effective by a clear institutional strategy, built upon engaged students and staff, by leaders they trust.
Individuals will need to realign. I know I am trying to. There are unlikely to be many academic or professional staff, in any of our universities, unaffected by what we are going through. Pursuing complex and deep work in our fields is hard enough without massive turbulence all around you. Most spend a large amount of time seeking to immerse themselves from what “the university” is up to. Now will be a time for all to realign with the bigger picture and position ourselves well to both gain from and contribute to it. And leaders will be needed to help staff do that, and do it well.
But the greatest opportunity for alignment is with partners. This is a time when our partners to universities need us more than ever. And the policy settings are demanding that we do it. Whether it is the partners that need our research at a time when science has been rediscovered. Or whether it is partners from the employment world that need our reimagined learning practices to deliver to the biggest disruption to skill needs of a generation. Or the partners to the whole mission of our university, for institutions and individuals that become the engagement specialists.
One of the best leaders of partnerships in our universities is Professor Aleksander Subic, DVC of Science Engineering and Health and VP of Digital Innovation at RMIT. He was our latest guest on the Higher Education Experience Podcast Episode 5 which you can download on Spotify and Apple. You can also find it at HEDX.com.au
He argues strongly for alignment and illustrates how he achieved it within RMIT and with its partners in Siemens, Amazon Web Services, FESTO, Telstra Health and others. He advocates for this being a time for great leaders to stand up and for the need for systems leadership. Leaders that can see the wider picture and create ecosystems, can build relationships inside their institution, and can establish partnerships based on shared values with external partners. And can use them to see strategy and careers flourish in the toughest of times. It sounds like alignment leading to enlightenment to me. It is what HEDx is all about.