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University numbers: what counts if we are all in this together?

Updated: Sep 14, 2020

The world has been waking up to a new set of numbers most days since March. In Australia, the numbers look quite different state to state. The feeling that “we are all in this together” is certainly under challenge. There is a great sense of concern for the numbers in Victoria and around the world. It makes us realise how lucky some of us are. The numbers in universities are certainly very different from a year ago. Although the concern about them appears to be quite localised to those in the sector. And some are much luckier than many.

This time of year brings back memories of Sunday open days. These were great events when newly developed campuses were presented at their most busy, vibrant and open. We showed them off to optimistic crowds of prospective students and hopeful parents. The competition was to secure next year’s high achieving and inspired school leavers, with their anticipation of schoolies and formals, to top up our almost assured flow of international enrolments. It was the icing on the cake for management to finalise ambitious budgets, and new hires. And set up staff and students to look optimistically at the next lot of futures commencing the next year. Great days for all.

What a different world 2020 has become. Open days are online and continue for weeks. Very few international commencements are in prospect for months or even years to come. Campus visitors are still in the handfuls. And staff are on chat lines and recorded videos, rather than stalls and tents. The whole sector has a very different sense of any security and certainty for the future.

We are getting to the sharp end of the wave of economic pressure in Australian universities. Votes to vary Enterprise Agreements are being counted with a mixture of relief or regret. Budgets are being recast in support of strategies for short term sustainability and survival, more than long term new vertical campuses and research capacity growth.

The numbers are very different. It is no longer about how many law brochures were distributed by campus, or digital leads captured at main gate registrations. Is the University of Melbourne leading the crazy new rankings, in data publicly declared to date, with losses of $1bn leading to a likely 450 number of job losses? Or does UNSW lead the league table with close to 500 job losses forecast there? And this from two of our world-leading institutions. No-one wants to lead it that’s for sure, but the Universities Australia forecast of 21,000 job losses sector wide, suggests that all universities will be playing with these numbers right now.

And are “no” vote numbers foregoing pay rises and Christmas holidays, preferable to “yes” numbers voting to retain a 2% pay rise in 2021. And would some in yes voting institutions have preferred to forego this, to reduce job losses that will now likely disproportionately impact them. And what does this mean for the culture of all of these staff trusting and working with each other for the next 5 years?

It is so difficult to know what numbers are best for anyone right now and how they will play out. And who is thinking about the impact on staff and students for 2021 to 2025? The long game will be how well each university is set to give great staff and student experiences. What numbers do we need to look at to measure how well set we are for that, I wonder? Aren’t they the ones to measure and focus on? After all, we are all in this together, right?

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