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University strategy under examination

Updated: Oct 8, 2020

One of the delights about universities has always been how, through an annual cycle, plus le change plus le meme chose. Students appear to be the same age every year. They keep the rest of us feeling young as we advance through the system. Senior leaders come and go. They bring their distinctive style and personal touch to our universities, and their own new strategic plans, often with a restructure. But life has gone on largely in the same way despite all of that? Maybe it has been slowly shifting beneath our feet imperceptibly. Is the carpet now being pulled from under the feet of the sector more broadly?

As we get to spring, the hard work of the year comes towards an end. As the first Jacaranda appears, it reminds us that it is exam time. The work this year has been harder than ever. And the exams this year seem more different than they have in any other spring. The examinations of our universities have never been tougher, or meant so much for them, their staff, their students and their futures.

The immediate reactions by many universities to the events of 2020 have been just that, reactions. It could not have been anything but a reaction really could it?. Although we might have had a pandemic in our risk register, no-one could really have foreseen a loss of revenue and a need to change our learning, campus operations, budgets and plans for our staffing profiles, to the extent that we have this year. In the circumstances, the reactions have been excellent and leave us all well placed for the further examinations ahead of us.

We have achieved so much in the absence of either support or clarity from government, or much sympathy from a distracted public and corporate world. Despite our best efforts, we have seen an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to develop unity between states, employers and staff representatives, or between groups of universities. They now look like they are jockeying for position for crumbs from the table, as legislation looms.

Each of our 39 institutions has largely had to fend for itself as the strategy exams now start. They are making their response from an assessment of strategic context and opportunity, or maybe a feeling of how to achieve survival. They are each doing what seems right for them to get through to the end of the year. It has never been a tougher time to work in a university and the exams this year will be the hardest yet.

We all came into all of this in 2020 with our own existing strategies. Depending on where we were up to in our cycles of usually 5-year planning, and maybe of having new or established or renewed Vice Chancellors, these strategies may have been newly framed progressions from recent trajectories, or rusted-on commitments to well-trodden and variously successful paths.

But how many of the university strategies in place in March 2020 remain valid for 2021 and beyond? Do they need to be thrown away and started again with new business models set without the constraints of former assumptions? Can they just be refreshed in the current context as amended, watered down, or powered up versions of former plans? Or is the strategy word of 2020 really going to turn out to be “pivot” with universities having to substantially reset their plans, look towards new horizons, set a different tack, and set sails cut to suit the cloth now available to them?

We are beginning to know much more about how all 39 universities vary in terms of income lost, staff numbers to be shed, whether they have EA variations agreed with unions or not, and even whether their new VC is yet in post or about to “arrive”. Indeed the recent analysis by the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education gives an excellent overview to measure how each university compares in the tactical management of Covid-19 responses in higher education. They also start to give pointers to the issues all will face in turning to the issues of strategy. A good place to do some cramming and revision from I feel.

But what do we know about the strategic thinking that is taking place in the chancelleries of each of our universities right now? Not many have publicly declared, radically new strategies, as of yet. One of the first purporting to do so has been La Trobe. In this week’s Higher Education Experience podcast, Vice President of Strategy and Development Natalie MacDonald explains how and why La Trobe has come out with a new 10-year strategic plan, and why now. Natalie argues why she feels it is brave to do so, in response to some criticism that the plan is not as bold as it could be. She explains where industry engagement and new ways of connecting with staff and students, as well as changes in research focus, fit within the strategy La Trobe is now charting, while remaining faithful to its commitment to regional Victoria and first in family students.

We argue in this podcast episode that strategic thinking like this right now is both more difficult but more important than ever. We give some pointers to how other sectors are addressing these issues that universities can possibly learn from.

When the Jacaranda flowers have all fallen, and the heat is really on as summer is fully upon us, the passing of the current strategy exam will make an enormous difference to what we all end up doing next year.

We wish the sector well with this exam coming up and are committed to do our best to help it get the best results. We really are looking to help change higher education for good. After all, it is what a great higher education experience is about.

You can hear this week's podcast on Spotify or Apple and we are really thrilled that it has just been judged to be Australia's leading higher education podcast series.

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